Hidden Layers

Painting and Process in Europe, 1500–1800

Hidden Layers: Painting and Process in Europe: 1500-1800The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

To mark the opening of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation in October of 2018, the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, highlighted technical findings relating to European paintings in the Blaffer and MFAH collections. The imaging techniques of x-radiography and infrared reflectography have revealed preparatory layers or underlying changes. In some instances, entirely different compositions below a painting’s surface were uncovered. In others, the brilliance of an artist’s underdrawing or the subtle alterations of line as the design was refined are seen. In all of them, details of the artists’ working methods—and clues to original and changing artistic intentions—are made clearer by discovering what lies in the hidden layers.

Saint John the Baptist (c. 1435 - 1440) by Giovanni di PaoloThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Imaging the Invisible

Techniques for imaging parts of the spectrum that our eyes cannot see expand our knowledge about the structure and condition of paintings. Special cameras and film or digital technology capture an image created by the varied responses of materials as they absorb or reflect wavelengths in the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

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Infrared Imaging

Infrared reflectograms or digital infrared reflectance photography show the pattern of contrasting absorption and reflection of layers just below the visible surface. In this infrared image of Giovanni di Paolo’s 15th century “Saint John the Baptist,” dark lines appear where the infrared energy has been absorbed by the materials of the carbon black underdrawing, which the artist used to delineate his composition. In the light areas, the same wavelengths are reflected from the light ground. Close-up examination can even distinguish between lines made with a dry charcoal-like drawing point, used by the artist for the first rough sketch on the panel, and subsequent careful development of the composition with a brush and a fluid medium.

Saint Peter (15th century) by Master of PalanchinosThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


X-rays have much shorter wavelengths and higher energy than visible light and are powerful enough to penetrate through the materials of a painting’s structure, including the wood supports often used in the early European schools. X-rays pass easily through materials of low atomic weight, such as carbon-based pigments and other organic materials, and make dark areas on the x-ray film. Higher atomic-weight materials, like lead white pigment, block the x-rays and appear white on the film. The image you see is a pattern of the relative opacity—the ability to stop x-rays—of the different materials throughout the entire thickness of the painting.

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The x-radiograph of “Saint Peter” is easy to interpret and shows fine lines made with a stylus to establish the composition on the grounded panel (area of arm holding keys). The flesh areas with white lead are clearly legible, and even fibers used in the preparation of the panel appear as slightly dark irregular linear areas throughout. The large white circles correspond to metal fixings in the reverse of the wooden panel, and the vertical dark line shows where the ground and paint have been disrupted by a split in the panel (now repaired).

The Holy Family (no date) by Workshop of Joos van CleveThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Holy Family

Workshop of Joos van Cleve, “The Holy Family,” 1485–1541/2, oil on wood, the Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 44.528

A master of the Antwerp Guild from 1511 to 1512, Joos van Cleve ran a large workshop with numerous assistants, producing many small devotional paintings for ecclesiastical and private patrons. A number of standard compositions were repeated with minor variations, and they vary enormously in quality. This version of “The Holy Family” is one of several similar works in which the Christ Child is shown either standing or lying in his mother’s lap.

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Despite the differences between versions, it is likely that the workshop used basic templates for repeating compositions: Some have very clear pricked outlines from a full-size preparatory drawing or cartoon. In this painting, the infrared image shows distinct dots along the main underdrawing lines, indicating use of a cartoon, followed by a rather hesitant joining-up to complete the preliminary drawing. The quality of the underdrawing and the painting on top is somewhat pedestrian, indicating that this version could be a replica produced by a junior assistant, providing a fascinating glimpse of life in a busy 16th-century painter’s workshop.

The Mass of Saint Gregory (after 1530) by Pieter Claeissens IThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Mass of Saint Gregory

Pieter Claeissens I, “The Mass of Saint Gregory,” after 1530, oil on panel, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1979.107

This painting of “The Mass of Saint Gregory,” with the long signature in Latin at the bottom right, is one of only a few works securely documented as being by the hand of Pieter Claeissens I. The attribution of other paintings to the artist has long presented a challenge, as the sizeable Claeissens family—seven artists over three generations—was heavily involved in art production in Bruges during the 16th and 17th centuries, and different family members closely collaborated.

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Examination of the painting by infrared reflectography reveals extensive underdrawing, much of which is visible to the naked eye. The fluid qualities of the lines and pooling at the end of the strokes, ending in differently sized loops or hooks, indicate a freehand drawing done in a liquid medium with a brush. Architectural perspective lines have been drawn with a straight edge. It is possible that the artist was working from a fully developed compositional drawing and then embellished details directly on the panel.

Shading is indicated by hatching with parallel lines, which, as the shadow darkens, are drawn closer and closer together.

The figures in the background and above the altar are also underdrawn but are less heavily hatched.

The majority of the painting closely follows the underdrawing. However, some alterations are evident, particularly among the details above the altar. Judas, with his bag of silver around his neck, was first placed higher and farther to the right; the flagellation column was initially also more to the right; and the ladder was originally on the other side of Christ.

Portrait of a Boy Holding a Book (1560s) by ItalianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Portrait of a Boy Holding a Book

Infrared reflectography and x-radiography may help to settle a decades-long debate about the authorship of this mid-16th-century portrait, which has been attributed variously to Spanish painter Sanchez Coello and Italians Francesco Salviati and Alessandro Allori. | Italian (Central Italian) “Portrait of a Boy Holding a Book,” 1560s, oil on wood, the Samuel H. Kress Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 61.58 

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Another larger, seemingly adult figure was discovered beneath the surface through the use of infrared imaging: the eyes of this figure are clearly visible through the lower part of the boy’s face. Indications of long hair at the right and the spreading outlines of a draped form in the lower part of the painting suggest that the hidden figure might be a portrait of a woman. The artist may have used a thick, uneven gesso as a preparation layer in order to cover the underlying image.

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X-radiography—difficult to read because of the grid-like framework on the back of the panel—also reveals a flatter, winged collar without the lace details of the boy’s collar below and to the right of the two superimposed heads. It does not appear to belong to either of them and might indicate the presence of a rudimentary third figure, although determining at which level it lies is difficult.

Portrait of a Boy Holding a Book (1560s) by ItalianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The handling of the face and collar on the boy, the eyes of the hidden figure, and what can be perceived from the collar visible in the x-ray may suggest an attribution to Bolognese portraitist Lavinia Fontana, whose signed and dated 1581 portrait “Young Man at His Table,” in a private collection, shows significant similarities. Continued technical investigations of other works by Fontana may reveal a similar practice of reusing panels.

Portrait of a Lady (1520s) by Bartolomeo VenetoThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Portrait of a Lady

Even though Bartolomeo Veneto was a highly skilled and evocative portraitist and
painter of private devotional pictures, he was ignored by art writers in the 16th century and “rediscovered” only in the mid-19th century.
Bartolomeo was probably born in either Venice or Cremona by 1480. Details of
his life and career remain obscure, and the identities of most of his sitters
are unknown. He worked in several cities in Northern Italy in addition to
Venice, almost certainly including Milan, where this “Portrait of a
Lady” was probably painted. | Bartolomeo Veneto, “Portrait of a Lady,” c. 1518–20, oil on panel, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1984.26

“Portrait of a Lady” is consistent in format and pose with Bartolomeo’s other portraits, most of which show the sitter in bust-length or half-length, the upper body generally parallel to the picture plane. The face is usually angled toward the viewer’s left, the direction from which light falls on the subject, casting the other side of the face in shadow but allowing for reflected light along the jawline. On the right side of the parapet in this painting sits a small jar, which probably indicates that the sitter is portrayed in the guise of Saint Mary Magdalene, whose attribute is an alabaster jar from which she poured perfume on Jesus’s head or feet, as recounted in all four of the Gospels.

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Infrared imaging of the painting makes it clear that the figure was painted in its entirety before the parapet and the jar were added; the veil may have been added at this time as well. Bartolomeo may have found it simpler not to reserve areas for the jar and parapet, which could have been quickly painted over a completed portrait, or he may have added these details to transform a straightforward portrait into a representation of the Magdalene.

The Baptism of Christ (1520s) by NetherlandishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Baptism of Christ

Unknown Painter from the Southern Netherlandish School, “The Baptism of Christ,” 1520s, oil on panel, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1978.2

“The Baptism of Christ” is a complex picture of exceptionally high quality, and it has been suggested that the artist is from the circle of Jan de Beer, one of the greatest of the so-called Antwerp Mannerists. These artists broke with the tradition of early 15th-century Netherlandish art by introducing figures in expressive poses and setting them in elaborate landscapes or architectural spaces.

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The meticulous painting technique of “The Baptism of Christ” contrasts with the energetic freedom of the black chalk or charcoal underdrawing initially used to set out the composition on a white ground. The artist made several changes from the underdrawing during the process of painting.

The head of the crouching figure, who wears a white robe with red stockings and removes a shoe, perhaps in preparation for baptism, was originally higher and at a different angle and was executed with the eyes open.

Significant changes were also made to the raised arm and hand of the red-capped man at right.

Changes were made to the figures at the left of Saint John, where the fingers of the hands extend beyond the original reserve planned for them. The newly extended fingers direct the gaze toward the baptism.

Trees and landscape details were sketched with a spirited shorthand. When the large tree at upper right was painted, the leafless branches of the underdrawing were reduced to an even simpler network. In contrast, only summary strokes indicate the mountain contours in the underdrawing, which are then more carefully detailed in paint.

Saint Mary Madgalene (1560s) by Michele TosiniThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Saint Mary Magdalene

Michele Tosini, “Saint Mary Magdalene,” 1560s, oil on wood, the Samuel H. Kress Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 61.67

Saint Mary MadgaleneThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The underdrawing hidden beneath this sumptuous depiction of the biblical figure Mary Magdalene reveals clues about the complicated relationship between artist Michele Tosini and artist/historian Giorgio Vasari, for whom Tosini worked from the mid-1550s. Infrared reflectography reveals a brilliant, extensive freehand underdrawing on the white gesso ground, done very quickly and finely with metal point or black chalk throughout the work. The freedom of the drawing is remarkable, defining the figure and draperies in sweeping curves, with tighter loops for the features and hair.

The drawing of the right hand, holding the book, is fairly detailed, although shifted somewhat at the painting stage; the left hand, holding the jar, is much more summary and roughly indicated.

The right breast that appears in the underdrawing would have aided the artist’s treatment of pose, drapery, and proportion and may suggest an original study from the nude. There are some small adjustments between the drawing and painting stages: the pupil in the Magdalene’s left eye was lowered, and the position of the medallion on her chest was slightly changed.

Saint Mary Madgalene (1560s) by Michele TosiniThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Michele Tosini’s approach to the composition of Saint Mary Magdalene is perfectly in line with standard Florentine draftsmanship, as practiced by Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo, whom Vasari praised above all other artists. At the time this work was painted, Tosini was also actively adopting the visual vocabulary of Michelangelo, perhaps because of Vasari’s influence. Although Tosini worked diligently for Vasari and in a manner that would almost certainly have been approved by him, Tosini received little attention or praise in Vasari’s writings, where Tosini was described rather dismissively only as a good instructor.

Madonna and Child Seated in a Landscape with Saint John the Baptist (c. 1517) by Giuliano BugiardiniThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Madonna and Child Seated in a Landscape with
Saint John the Baptist

Examination by infrared reflectography reveals subtle aspects of the working process of Renaissance artist Giuliano Bugiardini, who was influenced by the harmonious compositions of Raphael. Bugiardini first utilized various cartoons to set down the figures with a dry medium like black chalk. He executed the figures and drapery with smooth contours, and then made adjustments to ensure the composition was carefully balanced. | Giuliano Bugiardini, “The Madonna and Child Seated in a Landscape with Saint John the Baptist,” c. 1517, oil on panel, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1984.23

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It appears that the cartoon for the Christ Child was shifted at least twice. At one point it was placed farther to the right and tilted at a 30-degree angle, seen in the detail of the proper right ear. Another shift occurs with the outer line of the face, which was eventually moved more to the left. Giuliano Bugiardini evidently rethought the exact placement and angle of the Child’s head before completing the rest of the drawing.

Giuliano Bugiardini later adjusted the hand holding the book by elongating the forearm and enlarging the hand, while keeping the same upper arm and shoulder line. This more-substantial change may have deviated from the cartoon entirely.

The background landscape was drawn freehand, and, though Giuliano Bugiardini still uses a precise touch for details such as an oak tree, he seems less concerned with working out the exact placement. The only change evident during the painting stage is the removal of an angular fold on the Madonna’s proper right shoulder—covered with blue sky—to make the slope of the shoulder gentler.

Madonna and Child Seated in a Landscape with Saint John the Baptist (c. 1517) by Giuliano BugiardiniThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Giuliano Bugiardini’s continuous attention to compositional spacing and angles supports the suggestion that he was carefully studying the innovations in the treatment of space made by Raphael. Bugiardini slowly integrated these ideas into his own compositions.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1606) by Joachim WtewaelThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Annunciation to the Shepherds

“The Annunciation to the Shepherds” was a common
subject in Dutch art at the turn of the 17th century. In his large painting
of the subject, Joachim Wtewael shows dark clouds of the night sky split with
“the brightness of God” shining on a group of shepherds, who are pictured
in various states between sleep and bewilderment at the heavenly apparition. | Joachim Wtewael, “The Annunciation to the Shepherds,” 1606, oil on canvas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 2006.1

A final compositional drawing may have immediately preceded this painting, as there is very little being worked out on the canvas itself. But infrared reflectography reveals that Joachim Wtewael applied some underdrawing in paint, especially around the hat of the central shepherd looking up to the angels, and made several changes, especially in the head and tail of the dog at lower right.

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Infrared imaging of the painting shows fluid underdrawing in dark paint. This type of underdrawing can be difficult to see. The image here highlights the central shepherd’s underdrawing in yellow.

Detail Comparisons from The Annunciation to the ShepherdsThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Also visible in the underdrawing are several subtle changes the artist made while painting the dog at the bottom of the canvas.

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The image here compares the painting as it looks today (left) with a color-corrected version of how it may have appeared when it was first painted (right). Areas of the painting were created with a pigment called smalt that, over time, may change from a light blue to a dull brown.

Graph of X-radiography Showing the Elements in CobaltThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The shift from blue to brown in this painting is confirmed by chemical analysis. You can see that both a blue and a brown area contain cobalt, the main element in the blue pigment smalt. This analysis reveals that the brown brushstroke was once blue.

Portrait of Joseph Henry (c. 1805) by Sir Thomas LawrenceThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Portrait of Joseph Henry

A figure hidden beneath the surface of this painting sheds new light on the artistic practice of celebrated English portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Infrared reflectography reveals a sketch of a male head in a carbon-based material, probably black chalk or charcoal, underneath the paint layer and upside down in relation to the painted picture. Lawrence sketched his first sitter before abandoning that project and re-using the canvas for “Portrait of Joseph Henry.” No other examples of Lawrence re-using his canvases have been discovered. | Sir Thomas Lawrence, “Portrait of Joseph Henry,” c. 1805, oil on canvas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1985.15

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The presence of the initial drawing suggests that Sir Thomas Lawrence first sketched his sitters directly onto the canvas. Contemporary anecdotal evidence supports this notion: One of the artist’s female sitters expressed her dismay that the “perfect” preliminary sketch Lawrence made for her portrait was to be covered with paint. Lawrence himself wrote about the importance of drawing on the canvas, explaining that the process could help an artist remember the contours of his figures accurately and paint them precisely.

Portrait of Joseph Henry (c. 1805) by Sir Thomas LawrenceThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The use of such a thorough preparatory sketch set Sir Thomas Lawrence apart from other British portraitists of his era. In fact, similarly detailed underdrawing corresponds with the figure of Joseph Henry but is so closely mimicked in the painted layers that it is difficult to discern. The abandoned portrait therefore provides a unique opportunity to observe Lawrence’s preparatory drawing before it could be obscured by the painted image. This observation provides a clearer sense of the highly finished sketches on canvas that his contemporaries report as being the first step in Lawrence’s process of composing the Romantic portraits for which he was so greatly acclaimed.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618 - 1620) by Possibly FrenchThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Saint Paul Writing His

“Saint Paul” shows the apostle seated at a table, writing the letters to various churches that came to form part of the Bible. The composition and the strong contrast of light and shadow derive from paintings by Caravaggio. This painting—unsigned, undated, and undocumented—has been attributed to various artists working in Rome in the early 17th century, including French artists Valentin de Boulogne and Nicolas Tournier. | Possibly French, active in Rome, “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” c. 1618–20, oil on canvas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1991.4

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X-radiographs reveal two additional compositions of different subjects below the surface. The painting may be the work of an impoverished artist who, rather than buying a new canvas, simply painted over his unsuccessful compositions. All three could be by the same hand, or they may have been done by different artists.

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Directly beneath “Saint Paul”—and upside down in relation to it—is “The Mocking of Christ,” already revealed to the naked eye by the head of Christ appearing in Paul’s tabletop, made visible by increased transparency over time of the upper layers of paint in that area.

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Underneath “The Mocking of Christ” is “An Artist at His Easel.” Both of the underlying compositions were finished or nearly finished before the artist painted over them. The artist did not scrape off any of the paint or add a layer of ground between the compositions, but simply rotated the canvas 180 degrees before beginning the next composition. The artist’s shirt in the lowest composition seems to serve as the basis of Christ’s body in the composition immediately above it; otherwise, the three compositions are not related to each other.

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Does knowledge of these underlying compositions help determine the identity of the painter? One motif within “The Mocking of Christ” is suggestive. The glow around the raised fist of Christ’s tormentor at the lower right was painted in lead-tin yellow, revealed by x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), suggesting a torch. Internal light sources were used by several Caravaggesque painters working in Italy, foremost among them influential Dutchman Gerrit van Honthorst, but although this device narrows the field of possibilities, the painter is still not identified.

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Some paint pigments chemically alter over time and become transparent. Here, this alteration reveals a face and arm from an earlier painting immediately below the surface.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Using x-ray imaging and rotating the canvas 180 degrees reveal that this face belongs to a scene from the biblical story “The Mocking of Christ.” Wearing a crown of thorns, Christ faces two soldiers.

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X-ray imaging also reveals an even earlier composition of an artist at work in his studio. Here, the canvas has been rotated back 180 degrees.

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These outlines show that x-ray imaging makes all three paintings visible: “Saint Paul” in blue, “The Mocking of Christ” in green, and the artist at work in yellow. These layered compositions reveal that this canvas was reused multiple times for very different paintings, perhaps by the same artist.

Tancred Baptizing Clorinda (c. 1586-1600) by Domenico TintorettoThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Baptizing Clorinda

Tintoretto, “Tancred
Baptizing Clorinda,” c. 1586–1600, oil
on canvas, the Samuel H. Kress
Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 61.77

Paintings by Venetian Mannerist Domenico Tintoretto share stylistic qualities with the work of his father, renowned painter Jacopo Tintoretto. Technical investigations of this painting, considered to be by Domenico, suggest that father and son were also alike in their artistic practice. In this scene from the epic poem “Jerusalem Delivered” about the First Crusade, the grieving Tancred kneels to baptize his dying love Clorinda, whom he mistakenly wounded. Infrared reflectography reveals a grid pattern under Tancred’s body, indicating that the crusader’s kneeling form was transferred onto the canvas from a drawing. Transfer grids (squaring) allow proportions to be maintained when replicating a smaller image on a different (usually larger) scale. Small squared drawings attributed to Jacopo, now in the British Museum, are almost certainly the sources for Tancred, suggesting that the younger artist had access to his father’s figure studies.

Tancred Baptizing ClorindaThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Although Domenico Tintoretto may have utilized the transfer grid to draw the figures onto the canvas, x-radiograph imaging reveals pentimenti (original drawings) that suggest the artist also worked out several details in paint directly on the canvas, notably in Clorinda’s right hand. The x-radiograph indicates that the artist used an opaque paint (probably white) to alter previously drawn figures, a technique also detected in several paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto and his workshop. This use of white for alterations, alongside the use of the transfer grid and figure studies, reinforces the idea that the working methods of father and son had much in common.

Detail of Tancred Baptizing ClorindaThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Infrared imaging reveals marks made by artist Domenico Tintoretto in preparation for this painting. The underdrawing was done with fluid, dark paint, especially visible in the muscles of this figure’s back; the underdrawing is highlighted in yellow.

Detail Comparison of Tancred Baptizing ClorindaThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

X-ray imaging provides clues about Domenico Tintoretto’s painting process. In the x-ray detail of the hand, the blades of grass visible within the hand itself provide evidence that Domenico had first painted only foliage in this area. During the process of painting, he placed the figure’s hand on top of the foliage. Changes to the shape of the arm and hand in the final painting can also be seen, indicating that Domenico continued to work on this composition’s details throughout the painting process.

Portrait of a Lady as Saint Agnes (1580s) by Paolo VeroneseThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Portrait of a Lady as Saint Agnes

Paolo Veronese, “Portrait of a Lady as Saint Agnes,” 1580s, oil on canvas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1982.14

One of the most important painters in the Venetian Renaissance, Veronese is primarily known for his paintings of biblical and religious history, classical mythology, and allegory. He was also a successful portraitist. This Veronese painting is very unusual, possibly unique, in that it seems to combine features of a portrait, a traditional Venetian image of an ideally beautiful woman, and the depiction of a saint. The sitter rests her hand on a lamb, the attribute of early Christian martyr Saint Agnes, who maintained her virginity rather than marry a pagan. She also holds a prayer book in which a text from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke is partially visible. Given her opulent dress, her evident piety, and the reference to Saint Agnes, the painting has been interpreted as a portrait of a young woman, perhaps herself named Agnes, possibly on the eve of her marriage.

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X-radiography shows that Veronese made numerous changes to the picture as he painted it. He seems to have changed his mind about the background, painting a green curtain over what had originally been foliage.

In one area, the x-radiography reveals Veronese’s working with a form—the sitter’s thumb holding open the prayer book—until he painted it to his satisfaction.

Veronese also made significant changes to the sitter’s attire, painting over a pearl earring as well as an ornate gold necklace, for which a more-restrained veil around the sitter’s shoulders has been substituted.

Prominent circular forms visible in the x-radiograph around the sitter’s shoulders may be connected with Veronese’s method of constructing the figure in a series of bold arcs. An infrared reflectogram also helps reveal subtle changes that Veronese made to the sitter’s face, especially to the eyes and eyebrows. All these alterations show the care with which Veronese attempted to achieve a nuanced portrayal of both sitter and saint.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the

Jacopo da Empoli, “The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the
Baptist,” c. 1575, oil on poplar panel, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2016.147

Florentine painter Jacopo Chimenti, called “da Empoli” after his father’s birthplace, was a notable follower of Florentine Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo. This early work closely follows an important Pontormo painting, “Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John,” now in the Corsini Collection in Florence. The two works share the elongated forms characteristic of the Mannerist style, and the face of the Virgin is markedly similar in both. One difference is the placement of the Virgin’s right arm and hand. In Jacopo da Empoli’s painting, her hand extends to the lower part of the work behind Saint John and rests on the side of his torso; in Pontormo’s version, it is raised across her body, touching the arm and chest of the Christ Child.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A preparatory drawing by Jacopo da Empoli in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence seems to be closely connected with this painting. In the artist’s customary manner, the drawing is squared-up for transfer to the panel, but the Virgin’s hand is held across, touching the Child—rather than extending down by Saint John. Infrared reflectography reveals a number of underlying technical details in the painting. First, the panel is squared-up like the Uffizi drawing.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Second, there is another head, presumably of the Virgin, drawn in outline to the left of the present one.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Third, the Virgin’s arm and hand were placed across her body touching the Christ Child. Thus, the composition was initially closer to that of the drawing and the Jacopo Pontormo painting in the Corsini Collection.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Finally, and intriguingly, there is another, smaller-scale composition below this one. Close examination of the area of the present Virgin’s chin and neck in the infrared image reveals a female face, the eyes located in the chin and looking downward; below that, a shoulder and the top of a torso may indicate the beginnings of a Pietà, with the dead Christ lying in his mother’s lap.

Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the BaptistThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This image features all of the painting’s underdrawing. Among other details, it reveals that the artist, Jacopo da Empoli, originally planned for the Virgin Mary’s right hand to be placed on the chest of Christ, not around the body of Saint John the Baptist as it appears in the finished painting. By changing the placement of the Virgin’s hand during the painting process, Empoli has shifted away from Jacopo Pontormo’s composition and has created a more natural, intimate relationship between the painting’s three figures.

Credits: Story

● David Bomford, Chairman, Department of Conservation; and Audrey Jones Beck Curator, Department of European Art
● Zahira Bomford, Senior Conservator of Paintings
● Melissa Gardner, Associate Conservator of Paintings
● Tina Tan, Conservator, Works on Paper
● Stacey Mei Kelly, Assistant Paper Conservator
● Esmar Sullivan, Assistant to the Chairman, Department of Conservation

● Matthew Golden, Conservation Department: Normal Light, Infrared Reflectography, and Ultraviolet illumination
● Bert Samples and Matthew Golden, Conservation Department: X-radiography

● James Clifton, Director, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation; and Curator, Renaissance and Baroque Painting
● Josine Corstens, Curatorial Assistant, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation
● Marilyn Steinberger, Administrator and Assistant Treasurer, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation
● Julie Timte, Administrative Assistant, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation; and Administrative Assistant, Curatorial Department

● Lucian Salajan, Exhibition Production Manager
● Bill Cochrane, Exhibition Designer

● Caroline Goeser, W.T. and Louise J. Moran Chair
● Chelsea Shannon, Gallery Interpretation Specialist
● Maria del Carmen Barrios, Post-Graduate Interpretive Fellow

● Marty Stein, Photographic and Imaging Services Manager
● Cynthia Odell, Image Projects and Rights Coordinator
● Tom DuBrock, Senior Collection Photographer
● Will Michels, Collection Photographer

● Dale Benson, Chief Preparator
● Joseph Cowart, Associate Preparator

● Melina Kervandjian, Editorial Consultant
● Phenon Finley-Smiley, Manager of Graphics
● Radu Runcanu, Production Specialist
● Kristin Liu, Graphic and Web Designer

● Sara Craig, Administrative Assistant, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation
● Matt Lawson, Digital Assets Administrator

Credits: All media
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