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X-Ray Technique Reveals Hidden Woman Beneath Degas Portrait

Science RealClearLife Staff
Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de Femme), c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937. (a) Visible light image. The boxed region highlights the XRF scan area. (b) X-radiograph. The obscured portrait is rotated 180 degrees relative to the upper portrait. The face and ear of the obscured sitter are the primary source of contrast. (c) Reflected infrared image (detail). A partial outline of the obscured sitter’s face is indicated with a dotted line. The extensive use of highly infrared-absorbing black paint in the final composition provides a limited view of the underlying figure. (Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria)
Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de Femme), c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937. (a) Visible light image. The boxed region highlights the XRF scan area. (b) X-radiograph. The obscured portrait is rotated 180 degrees relative to the upper portrait. The face and ear of the obscured sitter are the primary source of contrast. (c) Reflected infrared image (detail). A partial outline of the obscured sitter’s face is indicated with a dotted line. The extensive use of highly infrared-absorbing black paint in the final composition provides a limited view of the underlying figure. (Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria)

Great art always offers us something new to discover. That is literally the case with French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman. Although Degas died in 1917, an undiscovered work of the impressionist’s started to emerge in 1922. It seemed that he had painted over an underlying portrait—using surprisingly little pigment to hide the original work—and that led Portrait of a Woman to begin slowly revealing a different woman altogether.

Reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait. The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps. (Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria)
Reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait. The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps. (Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria)

Over the years, this other face emerged, though experts couldn’t see it clearly until the the Australian Synchrotron research facility used x-ray fluorescence elemental mapping to fully uncover it. (This technique allows researchers to scan for the individual elements, such as iron, zinc and copper, to help determine different paint colors.) By creating and layering together elemental maps, art experts were able to see the woman beneath, who they believe to be Emma Dobigny, one of Degas’ favorite models, whom he used from 1869 to 1870.

To read more about the painting and this new x-ray technique, click here.