At first glance, this painting appears to be quite normal. However, on closer inspection you begin to see faint signs of another woman who has been hidden and painted over. The bottom of her skirt is starting to show under the top layer of paint near the bottom, and when you look at the painting with a slight glare (as we did in this picture) you see the ghost of a face next to the woman in profile. Who changed the composition of this painting? Why was the original woman painted over?
Older oil paintings are made with paint mixed from metals, which will show up in an x-radiograph. To investigate this mysterious woman, we took a traditional x-ray of the painting. Because we do not see the overpainted woman in the x-radiograph we believe that she was added using different paints that either do not include metals or include metals like zinc and copper which do not always appear in x-radiographs. Her face does not appear to be painted by the same hand that painted the seated man.
The x-radiograph shows that the two women have different styles of clothing, are facing different ways, and are engaged in different activities. The original woman has a lower neckline and a different style of collar, as well as a different hat. If you look at the bright dots on the x-radiograph, they line up with the pitcher on the table and the vase above the man. This leads us to believe that she is holding some type of container above the man’s glass. The original woman is closer to the man and is interacting with him, while the overpainted woman is in the background slightly behind the doorframe.
To discover more, a near infrared picture was taken that shows other aspects of the original woman. We can see her face more clearly and can tell that she is facing the man. The bottom of the pitcher she is holding is visible. We see that the man has not been changed from the original.
With x-rays and infrared radiation, we can see much more of the original painting. This new knowledge makes one wonder what the reasons behind the change are. Was the original woman the man’s wife or just a maidservant? Did the owner’s view on the role of women in general change?
We would like to acknowledge Professor Ruth Beeston of Davidson College Chemistry Department for directing us to this as an example of an underpainting and for her help with the infrared reflectography.