Technical analysis is an increasingly important part of the research we undertake when cataloguing paintings. One of the most useful techniques available to us is infrared reflectography which offers invaluable insight into artists’ working methods, at times revealing a painting’s hidden secrets. Sotheby’s Scientific Research department undertakes such analyses in New York, and has collaborated with Tager Stonor Richardson to provide such imaging in London.

Some paints and materials absorb infrared light, while others do not and appear transparent. This imaging technique works best when there is a light primer or ground layer to reflect the light and a preparatory underdrawing executed in carbon-based material to absorb the light. It is the contrast between the two that the reflectogram records. This non-invasive method allows us to see what is going on underneath the paint layer, to reveal underdrawing, pentimenti, damages or retouching.

One artist whose works we in the Russian department now subject to this technique is Ivan Aivazovsky. Following the recent exhibitions to mark his anniversary, new material has become available about the artist’s technique and it is our desire to both use and contribute to this.

Aivazovsky almost always drew in a heavy horizon line, usually with two but sometimes three parallel pencil lines, and this knowledge is something we take into consideration when researching his pictures. He also at times sketched in compositional elements such as shorelines, clouds and cliffs with a few cursory lines but worked prodigiously quickly and confidently, setting down most of the composition in paint.

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY, SHIP OFF THE CRIMEAN COAST. ESTIMATE £40,000—60,000.

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY, SHIP OFF THE CRIMEAN COAST. INFRARED REFLECTOGRAPHY BY TAGER STONOR RICHARDSON.

A freely executed underdrawing, particularly one from which the finished composition deviates is often an encouraging sign of spontaneity and artistic autonomy. In lot 3, Figures by a Moonlit Shore, for example, the underlying pencil outline of the cliffs shows that Aivazovsky shifted the entire composition to the left in the finished painting.

Aivazovsky’s mastery lay in his rendering of ships which were often painted directly, wet-in-wet, with little or no underdrawing needed to guide his hand. By contrast, infrared reflectography reveals that the figures were often added in almost as an afterthought onto an almost finished composition. This is the case in An Ox-Drawn Cart on the Shore, lot 9, in which the figure group with the cart has been painted directly over the already realised landscape and sea, with the drawn horizon line clearly visible beneath the disrobing woman, demonstrating a clear order of painting.

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY, MOONLIT COAST. ESTIMATE £120,000—180,000.


IVAN AIVAZOVSKY, MOONLIT COAST (DETAIL). INFRARED REFLECTOGRAPHY BY TAGER STONOR RICHARDSON.

The high carbon content of the dark underpaint or primer used in the moodily atmospheric Moonlit Coast, lot 4, absorbs much of the infrared making it difficult to discern the underdrawing (although the all-important horizon line is still visible) but fascinatingly it does reveals a pentimento: a stricken ghost ship by the rocks at the foot of the tower, later painted out. This offers us a rare insight into the working method of an artist popularly believed to have painted even his larger canvases in one sitting.

KONSTANTIN KRYZHITSKY, WOODED LANDCAPE. ESTIMATE £80,000—120,000.


KONSTANTIN KRYZHITSKY, WOODED LANDCAPE. INFRARED REFLECTOGRAPHY BY TAGER STONOR RICHARDSON.

One of the most exciting discoveries of the works in our June sale was lot 13, Konstantin Kryzhitsky’s Wooded Landscape. Just visible to the naked eye are the ghostly outlines of domes and towers on the horizon line hinting at an underlying composition. In the infrared reflectogram, the distant cityscape appears to be drawn in a dry medium, probably graphite, and is accompanied by dry, ruled lines executed in the same medium to set out the horizon line. There is also evidence that the artist had begun to paint elements of a cityscape before the composition was reimagined and overpainted. The architectural clues seem to suggest that the abandoned composition depicted one of the Volga towns, most likely Yurevets.

19TH CENTURY POSTCARD DEPICTING THE VOLGA TOWN OF YUREVETS