Hidden dalliance revealed by X-rays

Analysis uncovers a 19th century do-over

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Experimenting with a vivacious blonde, only to settle instead on a somber brunette, is an old, clichéd storyline — in fact, it’s at least 200 years old. A new analysis of a 19th century painting reveals that the artist first depicted a blonde with purple ribbons in her hair, before painting the canvas over with a sedate, unadorned brunette.

“Pauline in a white dress,” which was probably painted in the early 1800s, is attributed to German painter Phillip Otto Runge. Matthias Alfeld/University of Antwerp

Analyzing the portrait with X-ray fluorescence reveals elements from pigments such as cobalt and lead, suggesting the original portrait was of a blonde with purple hair ribbons. Matthias Alfeld/University of Antwerp

Altering the original version of a painting, a practice known as pentimenti from the Italian pentirsi, to repent, is not uncommon, said Matthias Alfeld, who presented his finding March 29 at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. This particular instance of “the artist’s regret” was revealed by a technique known as scanning macro-X-ray fluorescence at DESY, the German accelerator laboratory in Hamburg. Stimulated by an X-ray beam, chemical elements in the painting fluoresce, revealing hidden pigments without damaging the artwork.

The analysis revealed that the painting now known as “Pauline in a white dress” emerged after substantial changes. The presence of cobalt indicated that blue pigment was used in the woman’s purple hair ribbons, and the orange-red pigment vermilion was indicated by mercury. The presence and distribution of antimony, which is associated with the pigment Naples yellow, and lead, indicating white paint, suggest that the woman initially had blond curls that tumbled loosely over her shoulders, contrasting sharply with the tidy brown pulled-back hair of the visible work.

“This suggests that the artist regretted it and made it more modest,” said Alfeld, of the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Who that artist was remains in question. The painting is attributed to the romantic German painter Philipp Otto Runge and is presumed to be of his wife Pauline. But that attribution is disputed by many scholars. The X-ray analysis was requested by the painting’s owner, who hoped it might confirm the artist’s identity once and for all.

The results deepen the mystery, confirming only that an unknown artist once dallied with a blonde, then though better of it.

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