A mysterious face that lay hidden beneath Edgar Degas’s Portrait of a Woman for 140 years has been identified for the first time as one of the impressionist’s favoured French models.
The features of the young woman emerged when scientists in Australia scanned the portrait with a technique called x-ray fluorescence, which picked out the subsurface elements of the pigments Degas used for the original composition.
The image bears a striking resemblance to Emma Dobigny, a French model who was popular not only with Degas but also with other French artists. Dark haired and fair-skinned, she looks down to her left, in the opposite direction to the later, overlaid portrait.
The scan reveals the model’s face in such fine resolution that the tracks of individual paintbrush bristles can be seen. They show that Degas painted most of the young woman’s face in one action, but spent time reworking what were originally pixie-like ears into a more conventional shape.
It was not unusual for artists of the time to overpaint older works, but Degas used such thin layers of oils for his 1876 Portrait of a Woman that the face of the model he sought to obscure soon began to show through. As early as 1922, art experts criticised the portrait on grounds of the discolouration produced by the underlying image.
Working with the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, researchers used a narrow, intense x-ray beam generated by a machine called a synchrotron to scan the 46cm by 38cm canvas. As the brilliant x-ray beam swept across the work, it made atoms in the paint compounds fluoresce in colours that betrayed the elements they contained.
The scan produced a series of “elemental maps” of the painting which, when overlaid, reproduced the original portrait of the young model Degas committed to canvas at least seven years before overpainting the work. It took 33 hours to produce a 31.6 megapixel map of the artwork, with each pixel measuring only 60 thousandths of a millimetre wide.
“When I first saw the scan I was over the moon, it was very exciting,” said Daryl Howard at the Australian Synchrotron in Victoria. “At the time I considered it to be one of the most exciting times in my scientific career.”
“The night we managed to get the image I did a search through Degas’s whole catalogue and found several instances of the hidden woman in the painting we scanned. I can’t say unequivocally that it is Emma Dobigny, but it’s very suggestive that it’s her.” Details of the study appear in Scientific Reports.
Dobigny is thought to have posed for Degas for 20 years, during which she assumed a variety of roles from a bourgeoisie to a laundress. She posed for other artists too, including the symbolist Puvis de Chavannes and the realist Camille Corot.
But Degas appeared to have a particular fondness for Dobigny. In a letter he wrote to her, now held in a private collection, he pleaded: “Little Dobigny, another session and right away if possible.” Henri Loyrette, the former director of the Louvre, has suggested the two shared an affectionate relationship. Rather than depicting Dobigny as a professional model, Degas painted her as a more pensive young woman, an approach he employed particularly in the late 1860s for those of whom he was particularly fond, Loyrette has said.
The model’s face was rendered in zinc white pigment, with cobalt blue and red from iron-based haematite adding nuance to the skin tones. Flashes of vermillion, in the form of mercury sulphide, bring colour to her cheeks and lips. Iron and manganese compounds found around the head suggest Degas used the brown pigment umber for her hair. Meanwhile, maps of copper and arsenic suggest that green pigments made from copper arsenite had been used to paint a headdress or similar adornment.
In 2008, Joris Dik at Delft University of Technology used a similar x-ray technique to reveal a woman’s face beneath Van Gogh’s 1887 work, Patch of Grass. It is estimated that about one third of Van Gogh’s earlier paintings overlay older compositions.
Dik said the resolution of the Degas image is impressive. “The scan has really captured the detail of the hidden brushwork in terms of individual brush strokes with extraordinary detail. This goes beyond technical imaging. The scans are so detailed, you get the impression you’re at eye level with the artist at work,” he said.
Scientists hope to use the x-ray technique on further paintings that conceal older works. For art historians, the images can provide fresh insights into the way an artist’s style developed. But Dik points out that Degas’s Portrait of a Woman was better-suited for the analysis than many other paintings would be. Had Degas covered the original painting of Dobigny with a lead-rich ground layer, or used thicker oils, the image of the model may have been hard, or even impossible, to reconstruct.
Michael Varcoe-Cocks, head of conservation at the National Gallery in Victoria said the imaging procedure would have an impact on historians and technical researchers worldwide.
“There are many significant artworks which harbour long-standing questions related to attribution, authenticity or simply our desire to understand the hand of a masterful artist,” he said. “The high-definition, quantitative element analysis and resulting imagery produced by synchrotron x-ray fluorescence provides a new way for non-destructively probing into the layers of paint to see the otherwise unseen and measure the previously unmeasurable.