X-rays reveal portrait hiding beneath Degas masterpiece

Degas painting at synchrotron

While the woman in Portrait of a Woman has never been identified, researchers think that a portrait beneath it depicts serial Degas model Emma Dobigny, who worked for the painter from 1869 to 1870. The hidden painting was probably created in that time period. 

David Thurrowgood

Portrait of a Woman by French impressionist Edgar Degas looks like it’s hiding something. Degas completed the work between 1878 and 1880, and as early as 1922, the faint outline of an earlier work started to creep through the thin oil paint.

Now researchers know what exactly lies beneath. Australian researchers used a synchrotron to scan the painting with radiation targeting specific chemical elements, a technique called X-ray fluorescence that in the past has revealed do-overs and Easter eggs.

Building on this previous work, the Australian team created concentration maps of metallic elements across the canvas at brush-stroke resolution. Based on those maps, the team inferred which specific paint pigments Degas might have used and create a false color reconstruction of the painting beneath.

That painting also depicts a woman, just a different one: Emma Dobigny, a model that Degas favored in past works, the group writes August 4 in Scientific Reports. Why exactly the artist kept the earlier work and then painted over it remains a mystery. 

Researchers meticulously scanned Degas’ Portrait of a Woman for over 30 hours to collect enough data to create false color elemental maps using a software program and knowledge of 19th-century pigment chemicals. David Thurrowgood

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

More Stories from Science News on Chemistry