- Research article
- Open Access
Discovery and multi-analytical study of the last missing quarter from René Magritte’s La pose enchantée
© The Author(s) 2018
- Received: 25 February 2018
- Accepted: 10 May 2018
- Published: 15 June 2018
The last missing quarter of La pose enchantée, a 1927 Magritte’s oil painting disappeared in 1932, has been finally found beneath Dieu n’est pas un saint, picture painted by the Belgian surrealist between 1935 and 1936, conserved at the Brussels Magritte Museum (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) (inv. 11681). The in-depth study conducted on Dieu n’est pas un saint by means of non-invasive and complementary imaging and analytical techniques has allowed formulating substantiated conclusions regarding this double painting. On the one hand, the routine imaging methods, including XRR, IRR and digital microscopy, have delivered a comprehensive outcome regarding the transformation process of the right top part of La pose enchantée into the current composition. On the other hand, the pigments used for both the visible and the hidden composition have been characterized through the MA-XRF analysis of the whole picture and punctual Raman measurements. Additionally, the present paper proposes a virtual colorization of La pose enchantée, which has been build on the basis of the overall material evidences collected about the right top part lying beneath Dieu n’est pas un saint.
- René Magritte
- Hidden painting
- Non-invasive imaging techniques
The most famous Belgian surrealist artist, René Magritte (1898–1967), was always reluctant to talk about the painting materials and techniques he used, and, although abundant, the literature devoted to Magritte deals primarily with stylistic, iconographic and psychoanalytic approaches [1–5].
As a result, the materiality of his work is poorly documented and, so far remains understudied. Yet it is by nature a fundamental aspect of Magritte’s work that conditions the preservation and the transmission of his cultural heritage legacy. In such circumstances, questioning the painting materiality appears as the only possible way of moving forward. The research project Magritte on practice has been created in response to the lack of available information on Magritte’s painting materials and techniques. This on-going research project, initiated in 2016, is a collaboration of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (MRBAB/KMSKB) and the Centre Européen d’Archéométrie of the University of Liège (CEA), which aims to throw a new light on the René Magritte’s painted oeuvre by applying technical art history and conservation science tools on an extended number of paintings he made throughout his career. For this purpose, 42 oil paintings and 21 gouaches made between 1921 and 1963, conserved at the Magritte Museum, are being investigated in situ by means of non-invasive and complementary scientific imaging and analytical methods.
The in-depth study of a large panel of Magritte’s paintings through scientific tools addresses multiple issues; one of them is the discovery of lost youth compositions. Indeed, the precarious financial situation of the painter between 1920 and 1935 had led him to regularly reuse canvases from his former compositions. Regarding this Magritte’s habit and the extended corpus of works intended to be investigated, one could reasonably expect to discover underlying painted compositions, unpublished or indexed in the René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné (RMCR) with the mention “whereabouts unknown”.
It is precisely in the frame of Magritte on practice that the last quarter of La pose enchantée has recently been unveiled, amongst the oil paintings from the Magritte museum collection.
In order to obtain further details on the hidden composition and to get a better understanding of the pigments distribution through elemental maps, XRF spectroscopy was used in macro scanning mode (MA-XRF). The XRF scan of the whole painting has been completed in approximately 35 h by using the CEA translation stage and homemade XRF system [11–13], made of a Moxtek™ Magnum X-ray tube (50 kV) (with a Ag anode), a detector X-123SDD Amptek™ (25 mm2), with a resolution of 130 at 5.9 keV. Scanning step was set to 1 mm, speed to 3 mm/s. X-ray tube was set to a voltage of 40 kV and a current of 120 µA. Spectra were treated in batch mode using PyMCA , allowing to separate the signals from the different chemical elements.
The analyses by RS were performed with the Enwave Optronics setup (portable Raman analyzer I-Dual-G), using a laser at 785 nm . Three Raman spectra of 10 s integrated three times were acquired for each of the twelve investigated sites, with the lowest laser power necessary to obtain valuable results (ca. 30 mW). The recorded spectra were treated using GRAMS AI™. The MA-XRF analysis and the RS measurements were performed at the MRBAB/KMSKB thanks to the CEA portable instrumentation.
The ground layer is no longer accessible on the canvas edges. Although it remains difficult to conclude anything without cross-section to investigate, the higher intensity of the Zn and the Ca signals detected in the whitish thin linear cracks, along the length of the stretcher edges, is compliant with a zinc white rich priming layer rich, involving a calcium-based extender, such as chalk and gypsum.
The MA-XRF scanning performed on Dieu n’est pas un saint also provided elemental information about the overpainted sky. As shown in Fig. 5 the fluorescence emission of the Cr, Zn and PbL elements recorded all around the female figure seems related to the hidden sky and supports the use of Cr-based pigment(s), zinc white and lead white mixtures for its depiction. The identification of a chromium pigment throughout the sky is fully compliant with the results for the upper left part of La pose enchantée alias Le portrait . However, the Cr and Zn elements appear more abundant in the area edging the wall. The detection of more intense Cr signals, originating from the paint layer beneath the dove, suddenly interrupted in the nude’s right shoulder, and, the greenish blue color observed under microscope on the subsurface of the wings suggest that the right section of the sky was greener than its left counterpart.
In terms of composition, the ochre and blue backgrounds have in common all the elements detected by MA-XRF, except chromium and mercury. The even distribution of the Fe, PbM, Ca and P elements in the overall ochre region suggests the presence of iron oxide pigment(s), such as ochers and earths, lead white and bone black on the painting surface. Bone black and lead white were successfully identified through Raman analyses conducted on the visible ochre area. A close examination of the ocher brushstrokes surrounding the dove and the shoe pointed out that they were applied subsequently to the depiction of both features. Regarding the wall lying beneath the ocher background, the Zn and PbL distribution maps indicate subsurface layers zinc white rich, involving lead white as well. As mentioned above, the skyline, dividing the top blue and the lower ochre background, perfectly overlaps the demarcation line of the wall belonging to the former composition. The dark brown borderline partly covered by the upper ocher paint layer could then correspond to the left outline of the overpainted wall. Interestingly, the examination of the ocher region edging the skyline under microscope revealed the presence of darker grey/brown under layers. Inversely, the buff-colored underlayer partly visible on the lower edge, which fluoresces under UV light (see Additional file 1: Figure S1), supports the use of much brighter tones in the outside section of the wall. These findings tend to evidence that the hidden wall was made of different shades of brown and grey, lighter and lighter from left to right. The MA-XRF measurements conducted on a part of the lower tacking edge showed that the buff-colored under layer and the ocher top layer mostly differ through the intensity of the detected Zn signals. Indeed, the underlayer that emits more intense Zn signals clearly stands out from the Zn distribution map.
Dove, shoe and signature
Concerning the dove from the current image, the Pb, Ca and P distribution maps suggest a prominent use of lead white and bone black for depicting the bird . Punctual Raman analyses performed on the grey and black brushstrokes confirmed the combination of bone black and lead white. The detection of more intense Zn and Cr signals, associated to the former sky, in the dark grey and black shades of the dove can be explained by the fluorescence emission of both elements, which is less attenuated in the areas richer in bone black (Ca and P being lighter elements than the Pb, more abundant in the surrounding regions). In the same way, the Fe and Zn signals detected in the upper part of the left wing, partly covering the nude’s shoulder can be considered as coming from the flesh tones lying beneath. The shoe seems mainly made of iron-based pigment(s) admixed with variable proportions of lead white, the white pigment being more abundant in the lightest brown shades found in the buckle and inside the shoe. The use of earth pigments could explain the concomitant presence of Ca and Fe elements found out in the shoe and in the legs of the bird. One can see that the signature stands out in the Fe and Ca maps. The abundance and the even distribution of both elements are compliant with a writing based on earth pigments.
The in-depth study of Dieu n’est pas un saint by means of complementary imaging and analytical methods delivered plenty of material and technical information about the last missing quarter of La pose enchantée lying underneath the visible picture. While the XRR allowed visualizing the hidden composition in detail, the MA-XRF analysis made possible to characterize the pigments associated to the overpainted features, as well as those related to the current composition. These results are in good concordance and complimentary with the ones obtained on the other quarters [8, 9]. Strips of canvas of a few centimeters wide in the middle of painting are still unaccounted for. Unlike the three quarters of La pose enchantée previously discovered, the XRR has highlighted the obvious linkage existing between the picture of Dieu n’est pas un saint and the overpainted image. Indeed, the skyline dividing the top blue and the lower ochre backgrounds exactly reproduces the borderline between the sky and the wall underneath. Also, while the sky area, including the nude, has been transformed into a uniform blue background, the wall has been changed into an even ocher background. On the basis of the MA-XRF results, the nude flesh tones primarily involve lead white, zinc white and iron oxide pigment(s), the sky is rich in chromium green and zinc white, and, the wall contains large amounts of zinc white. Besides the elemental composition revealed by MA-XRF for both, the hidden and the visible picture, some pigments from the surface paint layers have been successfully identified through RS. A close observation of the painting with the naked eye and the examination of areas of interest under microscope provided further material evidences regarding the original appearance and the transformation process of the right top part of La pose enchantée. The hidden wall certainly exhibited different shades of brown and grey, lighter and lighter from left to right and the blue sky most probably displayed uneven bright greenish blue shades.
CD, EH and DS have realized the in situ measurements (imaging, XRF and Raman), CD, DS, FV and FL have interpreted the results of the analysis. All authors read approved the final manuscript.
The authors sincerely thank Michel Draguet, General Director of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique/Koninklijke Musea poor Schone Kunsten van België (MRBAB/KMSKB), for his commitment that greatly assisted this research. The authors would like also to express their gratitude to Ludovic Godfrin, Modern painting collection keeper at the MRBAB/KMSKB, for his technical assistance.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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