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The history that hides behind the surface of a painting

By Jeffrey J. CarmelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1984


If Hercule Poirot were an art hound, the mystery of the missing Millet would have the mythical Belgian detective twirling the ends of his finely waxed mustaches in delight.

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In this unusual case, a long-lost picture by Jean-Francois Millet, the French realist and pre-Impressionist painter - ''The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon'' (1848) - has just been discovered in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The curious twist to the mystery is that the missing painting has been hanging in the museum for over a hundred years with one of Millet's most important later pictures, ''The Young Shepherdess'' (1870), painted over it. An X-ray revealed the first clue to the whereabouts of the earlier painting.

''The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon'' was ''one of Millet's most ambitious paintings,'' says Alexandra Murphy, assistant curator of European paintings at the Boston museum. ''He spent a good deal of time preparing (it) for the major Paris Salon of 1848.''

But 1848 was also the great year of revolutions, and perhaps in that spirit of defiance the critics had few kind words for Millet's work. It was to be his last brush with academic history painting, and marked his transition to the peasant and agricultural scenes for which he is best known today.

''What was unusual was that none of the people who knew Millet, and even later wrote about his life, had seen or remembered this picture,'' Ms. Murphy says.

She suggests Millet (pronounced mee-yeah) must have packed the painting off to his family's home in Normandy and stashed it away in an attic for 30 years. With canvas in short supply during the Franco-German War of 1870, Millet ''had a good reason to use the old canvas,'' she explains.

''The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon'' was never seen again - that is, until Pam England, a research scientist at the museum, made an X-ray of one section of ''The Young Shepherdess'' and discovered a confusing tangle of arms bearing no relation to the shepherdess.

Ms. Murphy says ''the X-ray was made almost as an afterthought'' in a routine preparation for a major exhibition of Millet's work at the museum in March.

The scientists had expected to find pentimenti in the picture - an Italian word referring to compositional changes made by an artist as he changes his mind during painting. Pentimenti - such as hands or arms in several different positions - are not unusual and show up often in X-rays because of the lead in white paint pigment.

''As soon as she (Mrs. England) said 'a lot of arms' over the phone, I knew this was the missing one,'' Ms. Murphy says.

A full-scale X-ray of the complete picture has now been pieced together, and the museum may exhibit the composite X-ray next to ''The Young Shepherdess'' during the exhibition's run from March to July.

The use of X-rays to authenticate and inspect paintings is not new. The X-radiograph (its true technical term) was invented in 1895 and used for the first time with artwork in 1897.

Pentimenti are fairly common, too, and conservators say they are not so much surprised as pleased when they find them. The Millet is unusual, they explain, because instead of small compositional changes, an entirely different picture was discovered - and a picture that had been publicly exhibited as well.

If X-rays have existed for almost 100 years, why was the missing Millet - hanging innocently in a major museum's collection - only discovered in 1984?