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“Detectives” to unravel the mystery of a Fragonard

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | Michael Swicklik, the chief restorer of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, explains to AFP the discovery of a hidden face of the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “La Liseuse” on September 27, 2017

For years, it was believed that a man was hiding behind his fine features. But a sketch discovered in Paris in 2012 motivated the opening of a thorough investigation which revealed the true face of “La liseuse”, work of the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

“The design has highlighted this potential error,” says Michael Swicklik, chief restorer of a major Washington museum, the National Gallery of Art, adjusting his magnifying glasses to examine closely the luminous portrait painted there is 250 years old of a girl dressed in a bright yellow dress and absorbed by her reading.

Michael Swicklik and two other experts used imaging techniques similar to those deployed by NASA for his mission on Mars to prove that this treasure of painting belonged to the bold series of “Fantasy Figures”, portraits painted by Fragonard some twenty years before the French Revolution.

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | John K. Delaney, expert in scientific imagery, participated in the work which revealed the existence of a first portrait of woman under that known on September 28, 2017 in Washington

These “Figures de fantaisie”, which show members of Fragonard’s entourage at the theatrical poses and dressed in extravagant costumes, usually looking out of the frame, are one of the “absolute masterpieces of the history of painting, “says Guillaume Faroult, an expert at the Louvre of 18th century French painting and passionate about the series presented at the National Gallery until December 3rd.

Because it is distinguished by showing only in profile, “La Liseuse” has long been placed on the sidelines of this series.

– ‘We did not expect’ –

When it had been restored in 1985, the specialists had believed through X-rays to detect under the face of the girl the features of a man, deducing that the portrait should initially be that of a male model.

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | Ultra-modern imaging techniques have been used, such as those of NASA for its mission on Mars

But thanks to the new methods, the National Gallery team was able to dismantle this thesis, revealing another woman’s face looking towards the public.

“It is fantastic for a conservator to have been able to re-examine the painting through these new techniques and to prove that (this hypothesis) was false,” continues Michael Swicklik, pointing to the bare painting without its frame, while his colleagues worked around other jewels of painting in the restoration workshop of the museum.

“We were not expecting to make new discoveries on this painting,” adds Yuriko Jackall, assistant curator of French paintings at the National Gallery, who worked with Michael Swicklik and the museum’s scientific imaging expert John Delaney, on these investigations.

– ‘Discovering mysterious things’ –

Working as a team of detectives, they studied the canvas using traditional techniques, but also using tailor-made tools to use state-of-the-art scientific imaging techniques: X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, X-ray spectroscopy (RIS) or Reflectance Transformation (RTI) imagery, which are used in particular for the reconstruction of 3D images.

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | Yuriko Jackall, assistant curator of French paintings at the National Gallery, points out a detail of the face of “La Liseuse”, which appeared with X-ray fluorescence on September 28, 2017 in Washington

These technologies have created more than 750 detailed images of the painting in very narrow wavelength ranges. The team was able to create a realistic simulation of the original composition.

“We do not know what we’re looking for when we start this research,” explains John Delaney, in the museum’s scientific laboratory. “Then we gather many types of information: the web of the canvas, the types of pigments, the style of the painter … And then we begin to discover mysterious things.”

– ‘Why such a change ?’ –

Thanks to the tools they designed especially for this survey, John Delaney and his co-investigators discovered the “ghost” of a woman appearing under the reading light, looking towards the observer and wearing a rich cap of feathers and pearls.

It seems that Fragonard “made a composition and left it for a while before returning several months or even years later,” said Yalliko Jackall.

Ⓒ AFP – MANDEL NGAN – | On the right, the simulation of the original portrait of “La liseuse”, reconstituted thanks to several techniques of scientific imagery, on September 28, 2017 in Washington

“Why did Fragonard make such a change?” Is it because the model has rejected the paint and so it could not be sold? Or is it because the original paint doesn ‘ was almost a study? We are not sure, “the expert continued.

At the center of these investigations is a yellow leaf sold at auction in 2012, with sketches of 18 miniature portraits corresponding to the “Figures de fantaisie”, 14 of which are exhibited at the National Gallery.

In addition to having raised the mystery of “La Liseuse”, these sketches, accompanied by scribbled names, have also made it possible to break through the secrets of other characters.

Thus, who had long been admired as the portrait of the philosopher of the Enlightenment Denis Diderot is now associated with a man of letters, Ange Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon.

But many mysteries remain, like the fate of the four sketches that do not correspond to known paintings: have they been destroyed, lost, or hidden in a private collection?

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