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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: A Portrait’s Curious Characteristics

by Serena Urry, Chief Conservator


CAMConservation , paintings conservation , Weir , Twachtman , X-ray , hidden paintings

This small painting by American artist Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919) was donated to the museum by the artist in 1911. It is a portrait of another well-known American artist, John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902). The inscription at the top reads “Sketch of John H. Twachtman by J. Alden Weir 1894.”

One of the curious characteristics of the portrait is the presence of cool green lying under some of the dark paint. A small area of loss at the bottom right corner shows the dull green underlayer. We used the painting during a recent training session with our new X-ray fluorescence unit to spot test the green underlayer. The XRF tool indicated the presence of chrome, so the pigment is likely to be chrome green. A test on the blue-green shadow in Twachtman’s collar showed the same results. It also must be chrome green.

The surface of the painting presents a second, even more curious characteristic. Textured brushwork covers the whole surface, but none of the strokes seem to have anything to do with the portrait of Twachtman; instead, the texture seems to be related more to the lower layers of paint.

A couple of weeks ago, we imaged the painting with X-rays to see if we could find an explanation for the curious texture. When the digital images were spliced together, a hidden painting was revealed: a portrait of a young woman in profile who is looking downwards.  Brushwork in the background looks like foliage. The female head seems to be painted to a higher degree of finish than the portrait of Twachtman, but beyond that, it’s a mystery.  If you recognize this young lady, let us know!

Julian Alden Weir (American, 1852–1919), John Henry Twachtman, 1894, oil on canvas, Gift of the Artist, 1911.1345