June 19, 2006

Exhibit Shows Under-Drawings on Paintings

WASHINGTON -- And they say women have trouble deciding what to wear.

An X-ray and infrared analysis of the portrait called "Laura" by the Venetian artist Giorgione indicates that at one stage she may have been wearing a round-necked dress instead of the present transparent veil across her chest. Later, the artist broadened the fur collar of her jacket and added a piece of fur around her waist, limiting the area of skin shown.

"The repeated changes to the woman's costume show Giorgione in the process of inventing a daring new type of image: the seductive female," an explanatory panel concludes.

The portrait, painted in the early 1500s, is included in a National Gallery of Art exhibit of 52 paintings by Venetian artists of the same time period. Some of the works have been scientifically analyzed.

"It demonstrates how they continued to develop their ideas after beginning to paint their pictures," David Alan Brown, the gallery's curator of Italian painting, said in an interview.

X-rays have long been used to analyze paintings.

"We do it to try to find out what was on the artist's mind," said Elizabeth Walmsley, painting conservator at the gallery.

X-rays and reflectography, using infrared light, have disclosed under-drawings that show the artist's original idea - often changed in the course of actual brushwork.

Barbara Berrie, senior conservation scientist at the gallery, said early X-rays arose out of collectors' wish to preserve pictures as completely as possible, to detect cracks and chips not visible to the naked eye. Her own scientific examinations have found that the special glow of the light in Venetian paintings has to do with tiny bits of glass the artists often mixed into their pigments.

In the early 1500s, Italians were taking great interest in ancient literature, its tales of nymphs and muses and love between gods and mortals.

One quintessentially Venetian theme is the female nude and eroticism, Brown told reporters.

"Here we are also concerned with the viewers' response," he said. "The viewers' response when called for is really titillation. That is, women were not very often painted in Venice at all and during this period they began to be painted in large numbers but in a particularly alluring and seductive manner."

He noted one painting in the show, by Jacopo Palma Vecchio, which portrays not one nude but 13.

Ms, Berrie said the Venetian painters did not spare expense to get the complex effects they wanted, even when viewers could not easily see how the effects were produced. She pointed to one religious scene where the bright blue of the Virgin Mary's cloak was achieved by putting a highly expensive red pigment underneath the blue.

At least 22 of the 52 pictures in the show have religious subjects. Despite the new interest in pagan themes for paintings sold to the nobility and rich business people, artists still depended for their living on work for churches and their devoted parishioners.

One of the most famous images in the show, making its first visit to the United States from the Louvre in Paris, is a "Pastoral Concert" now generally attributed to Titian. Many critics consider him the greatest of the Venetians.

It depicts two well-dressed young men of the 1500s, one playing a lute, with a nude woman on either side of the group. The women may be nymphs or muses. One is seated, a flute in hand, looking toward the men. The other woman leans on the side of a well, her head turned toward it, away from the men.

An X-ray study of the nude at the well revealed a drawing underneath that shows her "face turned toward her companions," says a note in the exhibition catalog.

"Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting" will be at the National Gallery through Sept. 17. Admission is free. Afterward, the collection will go to the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum in Vienna, which joined with the gallery in organizing the exhibit, Oct. 18, 2006 to Jan. 7, 2007.


On the Net: National Gallery of Art: http://www.nga.gov