Research Point: Pentimenti

This post marks the end of our internal exams and writing of diagnostic reports. The past few weeks have been hectic and drawing and research have largely had to take a back seat. After this weekend, I should get my life back…. at least until mid-August! I have discovered that I am allowed to use the Kunsthistorisches Institut of Bonn University for research, which will be useful and it will also feel good to do “proper” research in an academic library again!

Pentimento is Italian for repent or change. its plural, pentimenti, is the term used for marks in a drawing that remain visible after alteration and are not erased.  These marks can contribute much to the final appearance, character and even value of a drawing. 

Pentimenti can be characteristics of a particular artist’s drawing style or represent a stage in their artistic development and can be used to attribute a piece of work to an artist (1).  Some pentimenti remain visible in the finished work; others are “lost” when painted over, only to be rediscovered during cleaning and restoration many centuries later.  Cases where an artist has completely changed the composition and painted over a rather different painting, are not normally referred to as pentimenti.

An article published by the Art Institute of Chicago (2) explains how pentimenti in an 18th century painting by Watteau were uncovered by x-rays; for example, a man in a plumed hat appears in the under-painting but not in the finished work.   A woman in the final painting is looking the other way from the original conception. Originally, the painting had been conceived as a group of three, and this grouping was similar to another painting known to be by Watteau. The identification of these pentimenti helped to attribute the work to Watteau. 

I cannot easily trace copyright-free images of pentimenti.  Instead, here are some links to explore:

Conservation work at the National Gallery in London has revealed that Raphael planned a different background originally for his portrait of Pope Julius II.  More information at this link.
Follow this link to see drawings by Kathy A. Moore, in which pentimenti are visible throughout her work, and which provide texture to her detailed line drawings. 

Follow this link to see Leonardo daVinci’s Study of a woman’s hands in close-up.

Follow this link to see another rather different contemporary example of pentimenti: each of the three works comprises three translucent sheets in which marks on the underlying layers are visible when light passes through them. Pentimenti made visible by light. 

Rachel Healy has created a short video which illustrates the concept of pentimenti very well.


1. The National Gallery.  Pentimento.   Web. 14.04.12

2. The Art Institute of Chicago. Uncovering Watteau.  Web 14.04.12

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