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Using X-Rays To Find The Palimpsests Of A Young French Impressionist

May 16, 2017

Senior conservator of paintings, Ann Hoenigswald is interviewed in front of X-ray images of works by Frederic Bazille at the National Gallery of Art. Hoenigswald has been investigating some paintings by Bazille. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

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.

“In 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.