Na­tional Gallery sleuth un­cov­ers a French artist’s long-lost works

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PEGGY MCGLONE

While vis­i­tors to the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s new Impressionist ex­hibit see lush land­scapes and in­ti­mate por­traits, con­ser­va­tor Ann Hoenigswald spots clues in­volv­ing an artist fix­ing mis­takes and ev­i­dence of ear­lier com­po­si­tions hid­den un­der­neath.

Like a de­tec­tive, the Na­tional Gallery’s se­nior con­ser­va­tor of paint­ings com­piles these ob­ser­va­tions, which later guide her work in the lab, where high-pow­ered in­stru­ments can un­cover more about the paint­ings and the artists.

Her sleuthing skills are in high gear with “Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Im­pres­sion­ism,” the crit­i­cally ac­claimed ex­hibit on view through July 9. Hoenigswald was in Paris last year with cu­ra­tors from the three mu­se­ums that col­lab­o­rated on the ex­hi­bi­tion — the Na­tional Gallery of Art, the Musée Fabre in Mont­pel­lier and the Musée d’Or­say in Paris — who dis­cov­ered an im­por­tant Bazille work un­der “Ruth and Boaz,” a later paint­ing by the artist. Ex­am­in­ing X-rays of the large work along­side the paint­ing it­self, they pieced to­gether the el­e­ments of “Young Woman at the Pi­ano,” a work that had been thought lost.

a num­ber of ways, this was the big­gest prize,” Hoenigswald said. “He had writ­ten so much about the [hid­den paint­ing], so we know how im­por­tant it was to him.”

Hoenigswald will build on this re­search in July, when the ex­hibit closes and she can take some of the paint­ings into her lab.

“The in­di­vid­ual images make more sense when you see them within the larger pic­ture,” she said. “Each one alone is in­ter­est­ing, but . . . rec­og­niz­ing that the hid­den pic­tures ap­pear so of­ten es­tab­lishes a pat­tern and iden­ti­fies how the artist worked.”

A 19th-cen­tury con­tem­po­rary of masters such as Claude Monet, Au­guste Renoir and Édouard Manet, Bazille left his up­per-mid­dle-class fam­ily in south­ern France for Paris, where he stud­ied both art and medicine. While tak­ing paint­ing lessons, he be­came friendly with Renoir, Monet and Al­fred Sis­ley, artists whose work is in­cluded in the ex­hibit. Bazille shared stu­dio space with sev­eral of them, and let­ters show they helped one another pur­chase pig­ments and can­vases. Sev­eral of Bazille’s paint­ings fo­cus on the stu­dio and the cre­ative life of the artists.

Bazille died at age 28 in the Franco-Prus­sian War, leav­ing be­hind only about 60 works. About 46 of his paint­ings are fea­tured in the ex­hibit, the most com­pre­hen­sive ret­ro­spec­tive of his ca­reer and the first in the United States in a quar­ter-cen­tury. Mu­seum cu­ra­tors and sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered at least 11 of his paint­ings have ear­lier com­po­si­tions un­der­neath — a con­sid­er­able num­ber for such a mod­est out­put.

“We def­i­nitely ex­pect to find more pic­tures, and learn more about his process and about his re­la­tion­ships with fel­low art- ists,” Hoenigswald said.

They have learned a great deal al­ready. Scans have re­vealed that Bazille fre­quently reused can­vases, prob­a­bly to save money. He of­ten ro­tated the works 90 or 180 de­grees, Hoenigswald said, but he worked with­out ob­scur­ing the pre­vi­ous work with a new ground layer of paint or scrap­ing off the ear­lier pig­ment.

“He’s not for­get­ting what’s un­der­neath,” she said. “It’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult, dis­rup­tive, like white noise. He chose not to elim­i­nate it, [so] he must have been get­ting some sort of in­spi­ra­tion.”

As an ex­am­ple, Hoenigswald points to “Woman with the Peo “In nies.” She can see where Bazille al­lowed the el­e­ments of a pre­vi­ous work to be­come the shad­ows of the flow­ers in this im­age.

Most of the ear­lier works are re­vealed only through sci­en­tific scans, but there is one that al­lows view­ers to see the work un­der­neath. Bazille’s “Study for a Young Male Nude” is painted on the top half of a large can­vas, over an ear­lier com­po­si­tion fea­tur­ing the skirts of two women.

“This is bet­ter than see­ing an X-ray,” Hoenigswald said, study­ing the can­vas in the gallery. “Who is the artist? What are the col­ors?”

She and her tech­ni­cians will use a va­ri­ety of scans, in­clud­ing in­frared and X-ray flu­o­res­cence, to an­a­lyze this can­vas and a few oth­ers. They will build a li­brary of tech­ni­cal images of what’s un­der­neath the sur­face, and work­ing with his draw­ings and let­ters, she thinks they will un­cover even more in­for­ma­tion.

“The Na­tional Gallery has in­stru­ments and ex­per­tise that other mu­se­ums don’t have. We have this op­por­tu­nity to do this work and share the find­ings,” she said. “To look at so many pic­tures si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and in the con­text of [his] draw­ings . . . will en­hance our un­der­stand­ing of Bazille’s process and tech­nique.”

Hoenigswald will have only a few weeks to re­search the paint­ings be­fore they must be re­turned to their part­ner mu­se­ums. To pre­pare, she will talk to the cu­ra­tors here and in France to cre­ate a list of pri­or­i­ties for the Na­tional Gallery lab.

“I’ll spend a lot of morn­ings in the gallery to fig­ure out what we will do,” she said, smil­ing. “The more you look, the more you con­nect the dots.”

Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Im­pres­sion­ism Through July 9 at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue NW. Free. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.

PHO­TOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ann Hoenigswald, above and be­low, se­nior con­ser­va­tor of paint­ings at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, is in­ter­viewed in front of X-ray images of works by Frédéric Bazille.

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