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Hi-tech imaging reveals 'Fantasy' painting behind famous Fragonard

Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "Young Girl Reading" got its start as a significantly different painting, with the model looking out of the canvas.

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Clockwise, from top left: the original painting; the near-infrared hyperspectral scan; the X-ray florescence scan; and a simulation of how the original painting may have looked. National Gallery of Art, Washington

"Young Girl Reading" is commonly grouped parallel with Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "figures de fantaisie" -- a series of 15 or so paintings depicting a variety of subjects engaged in different poses and activities. The paintings have a lot in common with each other: they are of nearly identical dimensions; each took around an hour to complete; the subjects' attitudes and faces are all similar; they are all dressed in a particular style, with ruffs and feathers; they are vibrant and dramatic.

Yet "Young Girl Reading" stands out from the rest: where the others are posed looking out of the canvas or off into the distance, "Young Girl Reading" is engaged with an object -- her book -- her face viewed in profile, her eyes lowered, her posture relaxed and calm. So, while the painting has often been compared with the fantasy figures, she has never been considered a full member.

But now it seems as though the serene reader may have been painted over one of the fantasy figures after all. Using near-infrared hyperspectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence imaging, researchers at the National Gallery of Art have discovered a different face beneath the layer of oil paint, looking out of the canvas at the viewer.

This new "lost" painting has been named "Portrait of a Woman with a Book". She gazes confidently with her head tilted towards the viewer, a large feathered headdress on the back of her head sewn with coloured beads, and a thinner neck ruff than her younger counterpart. Furthermore, the painting existed for at least six months before Fragonard painted over it.

The imaging techniques, which scan for mercury -- thought to show vermilion paint -- were applied after a drawing was discovered at a Paris auction in June 2012. This drawing depicted the artist Fragonard showing the painting, indicated as a fantasy figure -- yet the painting in the drawing showed the subject looking out of the canvas, not bent intently over her book.

Further, X-radiography had indicated as early as the 1980s that another painting lurked beneath Young Girl -- but the details could not be made out.

The HSI and XRF techniques developed at the National Gallery of Art by senior imaging scientist John Delaney have allowed Delaney, alongside assistant curator of French paintings Yuriko Jackall and senior paintings conservator Michael Swicklick, to discover "Portrait of a Woman with a Book" -- and investigate the process whereby Fragonard transformed the earlier painting into the latter.

The trio will next apply their technology -- with the permission and cooperation of the individuals and institutions to whom the paintings belong -- to as many of the remaining fantasy figures as they are able.