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Technical Study of a Painting: Luca Signorelli’s Head of a Boy

This painting, by the renowned Italian painter and draftsman Luca Signorelli (active central Italy, first documented 1470, died 1523), is a rare surviving example of an informal working study by an Italian Renaissance artist.

Head of a Boy
Head of a Boy, c. 1492-1493
Luca Signorelli, Italian (active central Italy)
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Long thought to be a fragment cut from a larger work, examination by the Museum’s paintings conservators has shown that this painting was in fact originally made on a small, hastily prepared scrap of wood. Traces of original paint found on the outer edges and back indicate that the painting was its present size when painted. Additional evidence is supplied by a distinct thumbprint in the white paint applied first as a preparatory layer, showing that the artist or an assistant picked up the panel while that paint was still wet.

Once the white preparation layer was sufficiently dry, Signorelli made a drawing on it and then executed the painting with speed and assurance, leaving some parts unfinished, such as the hair at right; nevertheless, this study gives the convincing impression that the young man depicted has just turned his head in response to something disturbing or demanding his concentration, as suggested by his slightly knit brow. An artist’s ability to convey such a sense of movement and the mental or emotional state of the person depicted was much esteemed in the Renaissance.

Signorelli made numerous drawings of heads, which were not necessarily portraits of individuals, but like this painting, investigations into character, mood, or emotion. While these works may have been preparatory studies for altarpieces or fresco projects, they also have great appeal in their own right. The fact that they were collected early on and preserved shows how highly preparatory works from an artist’s studio came to be valued in the Renaissance as tokens of artistic creativity and skill.

Because this painted study was made for the artist’s or his assistants’ use, it was not framed; rather, it was simply hung, as seen here, by a cord passed through holes near the top edge.

Paintings conservators use many examination techniques, two of which are illustrated to the right. On the top is an image produced by a technique called infrared reflectography, or IRR. IRR employs a device that detects rays of normally invisible infrared light being reflected or absorbed by layers just beneath the surface of the painting. The resulting image reveals certain hidden features such as the lines of the elegant and concise ink drawing Signorelli made on the primed panel before painting.

On the bottom, the x-radiograph (much like a medical x-ray) shows features throughout the entire depth of the painting’s structure, such as the vertical grain of the wood panel, brushstrokes in the priming and paint layers, the hanging holes near the top edge and, at lower right (indicated by the arrow) a very clear thumbprint left in the priming layer by the artist or one of his studio assistants.

This remarkable work of art is on view in the Museum’s permanent display of European Art 1100–1500, gallery 212.