X-rays reveal hidden painting behind 19th century masterpiece

The 1823 painting Portrait of Don Ramón Satué is considered one of Francisco Goya's finest achievements, but it might actually have been the artist's last-ditch effort to avoid political hot water. X-ray analysis reveals this painting once depicted someone far more controversial than a local judge.

On the left, you can see the Portrait of Don Ramón Satué as we've known it for the last 188 years. The subject was a judge of the Madrid supreme court and a close friend of Goya's. It's been speculated that Don Ramón likely didn't pay Goya for the portrait, and instead the painting was done out of friendship. Now it appears like we had the situation reversed - it was Don Ramón who was doing the favor here, not Goya.

One of the preeminent romantic painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Francisco Goya served as court painter for the Spanish government - which left him in a tricky position when the monarchy was conquered and overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte's army. For the four years between 1809 and 1813 that Napoleon's brother Joseph ruled Spain, Goya was in the employ of the French empire, something that he had to live down when original king Ferdinand VIII returned to power.

Now it appears Portrait of Don Ramón Satué captures an instance of Goya erasing his own past, as X-ray analysis has revealed a half-finished portrait of a general in the French army. The painting is currently housed in the Netherlands's Rijksmuseum, and researchers from the University of Antwerp and the Delft University of Technology made the discovery using a new technique with the catchy name of "scanning macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry."

The researcher explain what this new under-painting reveals:

From the scans it can clearly be seen that Goya (1746-1828) painted his portrait of the casually-posed Spanish judge, Ramón Satué, over a much more formal portrait of a man wearing uniform. The decorations embellishing the uniform are those of the highest ranks of a chivalric order instituted by Joseph Bonaparte when his brother, the emperor Napoleon, created him King of Spain. The hidden portrait must thus date from between 1809 and 1813. Goya's portrait of Satué is signed and dated 1823.

Although the hidden sitter's face is not entirely legible, the portrait almost certainly depicts one of the French generals who accompanied Joseph to Madrid, and may, perhaps, even be of Joseph himself. The portrait is likely to have been left on Goya's hands when the French army was driven from Spain in 1813, and Ferdinand VII restored to the throne. Ten years later Goya would have had good reason to cover it up. He had subscribed to the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1820, and when Ferdinand resumed absolutist rule in 1823 Goya feared reprisals, going so far as to go into hiding with a kinsman of Satué's. Under the circumstances, his possession of a portrait of a Napoleonic officer could only have been construed as compromising.

Via the Rijksmuseum.