2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading National Gallery of Art

Fragonard’s Layers & the Promotion of Conservation Treatments

Ruth Osborne

2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading underdrawing

X-Rays. Lasers. Multi-Spectral Imaging. We’ve posted on these before: how newly developed technologies like the Er:YAG laser are promoted with such “promising” results, despite persisting doubts from other conservation professionals as well as publications on the risks of its application.

At ArtWatch UK, past coverage has highlighted the business interests involved in conservation technologies as the field finds new ways of convincing the public of the importance of new treatments.

The latest work of art to be put through the ringer – or, rather, a “custom-built…high sensitivity near infrared hyper spectral imaging camera and an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging sensor” is Young Girl Reading by Jean Honoré Fragonard. On this painting, a team of three at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. also used high-res color photography, reflectance imaging spectroscopy (or IRS), reflectance transformation imaging (or RTI), and mercury analysis alongside the previously-mentioned XRF imaging.

2017-10 - Fragonard Fantasy Figures sketch

Jean Honoré Fragonard, “Sketches of Portraits” c. 1769. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art / Wall Street Journal.

The team of a senior conservator, imaging specialist, and paintings expert at the NGA insist that this recent treatment was to discover more about Fragonard’s intriguing “fantasy figures” (portraits of his opulent social circle in masquerade style) and their connection with this finished work of a girl reading. A recently identified page of preparatory sketches by the artist discovered at a 2012 Paris auction. And that these sketches included one for Young Girl Reading in its originally intentioned form. That’s all very interesting. But beyond setting the newly-discovered preparatory sketch side-by-side with the painting in question, what more is actually being uncovered about Fragonard’s fantasy figures, especially if the artist himself decided not to paint her in the first place? And if the sketch does not feature a name underneath, pointing to the potential original sitter or patron?

2017-10 Fragonard Sketch Young Girl ReadingWhat is the investment value of examining the work with these custom-built tools? If the conservators today acknowledge the previously incorrect 1985 conclusion from conservators that a man’s portrait lay beneath the surface, how accurate will this new muddled image of a woman with a headdress askew be in concluding who from his circle Fragonard had originally intended to depict?

2017-10 Fragonard Young Girl Reading layers

Courtesy: Mandel Ngan / AFP.

We’ve reached out to the National Gallery of Art conservation studio on the motivations behind, and future intentions of, the treatment of the art. They have not yet responded, despite multiple attempts. We’ve also asked for more detailed information on how the new custom built machinery was used to achieve the views of the woman facing forward beneath Young Girl Reading. How helpful were previous studies in revealing the, now reportedly truer, underlayer? It was reported that the NGA team used a tiny cross-section taken from the painting from around the time of the 1985 restoration on the work. But just how did all the new the x-ray fluorescence and spectroscopy imaging tools enable them to see the final underlying image? What was the hope behind investing significant funding into these new conservation tools? After all, members of the NGA team are quoted as saying “It was not a painting about which we imagined making further discoveries” and “You start off this research not knowing what you’re looking for”.

2017-11 - Fragonard Young Girl Reading copy Braun et Cie

Editions Braun & Cie. (French, 19th/20th Century), After Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732-1806) Stamped “…Editions Braun et Cie” on the reverse, inscribed “Braun…” in ink on the stretcher. Photo-mechanical reproduction on paper laid on canvas, 22 1/4 x 16 in. Courtesy: Skinner Inc. Auctions, July 2011.

As for known extant copies of the work, there are several, but all from after the late nineteenth century, so far as we have found. And all which celebrate the finished image of the unidentified girl reading, none that hint at any layers beneath.

Just to give a further sense of how greatly media outlets work to increase  public intrigue in conservation science…

Reports also make mention of the inscriptions beneath the sketches identifying either a sitter or patron of the fantasy figure portraits, though the sketch made for what turned out as Young Girl features none. So, in fact, they have failed to point out just how these new “findings” identifying sitters are at all related to Young Girl Reading.

According to the reporter for AFP, “NGA experts used techniques akin to those NASA deployed on its Mars rovers to dispel any doubt the work belonged to a boldly experimental series by a young Fragonard.”

…and the new claim:

“Yet more discoveries possibly await”.

This is how the article ends.

A recent review through Forbes even likened the use of laser examination of this piece to the work of encouraging connoisseurship in today’s art world:

In the age of social media, connoisseurship has often been reduced to “likes.” Fad and fashion permeate the 21st century art market, where there is rare justification for greatness. Exhibitions like FRAGONARD: The Fantasy Figures require the museum-goer to reconsider the history and context of art making. New technologies unmask details, propel connoisseurship…

Exactly how do they propel connoisseurship? Isn’t it the desire for new “discoveries” – and more museum visitors and funding – the reason these new technologies are so prominently highlighted in exhibitions? There is a whole history to this work to be considered and learned from – things like Fragonard’s studio sketches and the painting’s ownership history – but is this highlighted by the press? Clearly there is some confusion as to what “connoisseurship” entails.

The exhibit at the National Gallery of Art runs through Dec 3rd, 2017: 

2013-08-13 - pump probe laser Puccio Crucifixion Duke University

Art Under the Laser – New “Noninvasive” Conservation and Analysis Treatments

Ruth Osborne 
2013-08-09 - art laser advertisement

1997 ad that appeared in the professional journal “Studies in Conservation.” 

“Shooting a laser at a priceless 14th century painting may seem problematic. But, precisely tuned and timed, the laser system may be the only non-destructive way to get into the mind of long-dead artists…”[1]

This is indeed a troubling statement for the future of art conservation.


ArtWatch has focused attention on the developing relationship between scientific study and the work of art conservators in recent years.  The troubling consequences of untested scientific methods applied to renowned works of art has been a concern since before the launch of ArtWatch International in 1992.  Founding Professor James Beck and current ArtWatch UK Director Michael Daley have examined such issues in the cases of the 1984 conservation of the Brancacci Chapel frescos and that of the Ilaria del Carretto in 1989.[2]  These studies establish the dangerous relationship between scientific developments and their application to irreplaceable cultural works.


Within the past year, molecular biologists at Duke University worked to develop a laser for melanoma diagnoses, and shortly thereafter proposed its benefits to the field of art conservation: “Dr. [Warren S.] Warren assumed that, just as with skin lesions, yellowed varnish and paint layers could be imaged by his laser to distinguish original paint from restoration, helping us understand the intended beauty of centuries-old paintings.”[3]  This technique, known as pump-probe laser imaging, creates 3-D cross-sections that show conservators layers of color and material in a work of art, and possibly the materials’ sources in future examinations. Pump-probe laser imaging is described as a way to “uncover the mysteries underneath layers of paint.”  This promotes the restoration of paintings as motivated by promised discoveries beneath the surface, rather than for the welfare of the work itself.[4]


2013-08-13 - pump probe laser Puccio Crucifixion Duke University

Pump-probe laser imaging being used at Duke to analyze The Crucifixion (1330) by Puccio Capanna.  Courtesy: William Brown.

John Delaney, a senior imaging scientist in conservation at the National Gallery in D.C., has admitted that the pump-probe laser is not sufficiently tested to be considered ready for serious use in the field: “It’s not ready for prime-time, but it’s showing some real promise, and that’s exciting.”  One would hope concerns and doubts already exhibited by specialists in the field would halt or at least slow down work with the laser on paintings.  And yet, it was first used on a small fourteenth-century painting by Puccio Capanna, The Crucifixion, part of the Kress Collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  How and why was the decision made to use this laser on this ca. 1330 painting without sufficient testing, and despite doubts circulating in the field? The hand of the conservator/detective works quickly.  Examination revealed a layer of materials that could help authenticate the painting as part of a Vatican altarpiece; and NCMA conservators express a hope they might learn more about the origins and the artist’s intent with future analysis.[5]  Similarly appealing discoveries that promised authentication and a new view into the artist’s intent were claimed with the Brancacci Chapel and Sistine Chapel restorations in the 1980s.[6] Will this promote the search for the “true” artist’s hand and authentication of even more works of art with lasers, even if their condition does not necessitate attention from restorers?

Another laser currently being used by North Carolina Museum of Art conservators is the Er:YAG. Dr. Adele de Cruz, adjunct associate professor of chemistry at Duke, invented this tool fifteen years ago for the purpose of removing “old, degraded varnish coatings.” Two videos, produced by Duke University in 2012, show conservators using both lasers to clean and examine the Capanna painting and an ancient Roman marble urn.[7]  Newspaper coverage of the pump-probe laser emphasizes its “noninvasive” methods, compared with other techniques of conservation analysis. It is promoted as a tool that can remove what is aesthetically unappealing and leave behind the original work, undamaged.[8]  Notions of what might be judged aesthetically unappealing and unoriginal are problematic and potentially question-begging. Meanwhile, such news articles gloss over the dangers posed to the work of art should the conservator’s hand as much as waver.  A paper published by Duke University acknowledges the risks that come into play when lasers are utilized in conservation efforts.[9] But while scientists responsible for such inventions may perceive the likelihood of misuse, how much will this really impact the spread of laser treatment throughout the art world?[10]


Doubts still persist in the conservation community as to the consequences of laser work that may be revealed in years to come. These tools require highly skilled hands working with meticulous accuracy and control. They also emit extreme heat levels to the surface of the artwork with each pulse.  Changes in a painting’s substrate, binder, or pigment can occur with exposure to such high temperatures. Furthermore, it must be considered that a laser that might have proven effective on the uniform mineral composition of a marble statue will not have the same impact on the softer, more various organic components of an oil painting.


Wolfgang Neustadt, M.A., a German conservator/restorer who works with an Italian laser company and two private international conservators, offers ArtWatch a look into the possible negative effects of laser work. According to Mr. Neustadt, while lasers have proven to be effective in removing centuries of dirt and grime, these tools can also remove parts of original surface material along with that unwanted grime.  In some instances, it may be that the laser is not being properly operated and that no supervising body of specialists is overseeing the work being done.  Critically, one must consider how the original surface of an artwork changes when cleaning takes place. Unfortunately, what is most often emphasized in reports on conservation treatments is that the cleaned surfaces “look like new,” which, again, begs the question.


2013-08-09 - Adele Cruz conservator laser Duke University

Duke University professor Dr. Adele de Cruz and chief NCMA conservator William Brown using the Er-YAG laser in the Museum conservation lab. Courtesy: NCMA / Karen Malinofski, photographer.

In Mr. Neustadt’s experience, those who use modern techniques believe them to be sustainable. New scientific developments, such as those at Duke, are often quick to be slated for use in other restoration projects: “The team is still testing and standardizing the laser system. If the research and development continues…the laser system could be turned into a portable device, making this type of analysis easier for conservation scientists and art conservators around the world.”[11]  There is great danger that after laser cleaning tools find favor with highly-skilled conservators, these same lasers will soon after be promoted as low-risk solutions for those with less skill to handle them. Such a development could only increase the risks taken to an artwork undergoing treatment.  What would greatly benefit the welfare of our cultural and artistic heritage is some properly accredited and composed authority be established to oversee how, by whom, and in what circumstances conservation tools are handled.  How can one tell what the NCMA’s 14th century Capanna painting will look like in 50 or 100 years because of its exposure to the laser now? And how can we ensure that these lasers will be used by the best-trained conservators in future projects? Underlying all practical considerations on the long term effects and consequences of new technical treatments is the question of whether aesthetic, interpretive and historical judgements can ever be devolved to purely technical experts.


At this point it would seem safe to say that not enough time has elapsed to see the changes that might occur and yet, already, these lasers are seen as tools that can help further the abilities of the conservator. In this (optimistic) view, it is thought that art, like science, should improve along with new technologies. William Brown, chief conservator at NCMA, maintains, “paintings once considered impossible to clean by conventional methods can now be returned to their former glory.”[12]  While these new laser systems at Duke may ultimately prove more effective than older methods in conserving and examining works, at the same time, we hope those in the arts perceive the possible dangers still posed when handling and treating irreplaceable piece of cultural heritage.  With more and more developments in the fields of science and art conservation, who presently is in place to ensure objectively that ethical standards are enforced?


[1] Ashley Yeager, “Lasers ID Ancient Artists’ Intent – A new laser system aids art conservation and restoration,” Duke University Research. Posted 20 August 2012,

[2] James Beck with Michael Daly. Art Restoration: The Culture, The Business, and the Scandal. (W.W. Norton & Co.: New York and London, 1993) 23-62.

[3]  “North Carolina Museum of Art Announces Collaboration with Duke University: Partnership offers art imaging and conservation research opportunities with new laser system,” (last visited 18 July 2013).

[4] Martha Waggoner, “Pump-probe lasers expose art mysteries without causing damage,” posted July 4, 2013. Boulder Daily Camera. (last visited 26 July 2013).

[5] Waggoner; “Pump-Probe Laser Imaging to Improve the Arts,” July 2013 Research & Technology. Posted July 16, 2013. (last visited 26 July 2013); Yeager.

[6] In the case of the Brancacci Chapel, conservators sought to authenticate specific sections of the frescos as authored by either Masolino or his younger associate Massccio. Meanwhile, the unveiling of a “new Michelangelo” was promoted with the first of the Sistene Chapel cleanings. Beck and Daly, 78-81.

[7] Laser Helps Reveal Details of Ancient Art: (last visited 26 July 2013); Laser Analysis Yields Art History Clues: (last visited 26 July 2013).

[8] “Pump-Probe Laser Imaging to Improve the Arts.”

[9] Adele De Cruz, Myron L. Wolbarsht, Susanne A. Hauger, “The Introduction of Lasers as a Tool in Removing Contaminants from Painted Surfaces,” (last visited 1 August 2013), 157-62.

[10] There is already laser conservation underway on delicate frescos at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii: The lasers for the Villa of Mysteries project are being provided by the Italian El. En. Group. They have provided lasers for art conservation work since 1994. El. En. Group: Light for Art. (last visited 1 August 2013). Additional work is also in progress at Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia:

[11] Yeager.

[12] “North Carolina Museum of Art Announces Collaboration with Duke University.”