Harriet Aiken’s X-ray has surprising results

A recent X-ray of the 19th century Harriet Lowndes Aiken portait (left) revealed the painting was heavily edited during its creation.

A stunning new X-ray image of one of Charleston’s most famous 19th-century portraits shows that:

a) Painter George Whiting Flagg wrestled with some indecision as he expressed his artistic vision.

b) Harriet Lowndes Aiken or her family had a change of heart as to how her life-sized portrait should appear.

c) Someone else had a heavy hand in editing this work of art.

d) Perhaps a little bit of all of the above.

The only thing experts are sure of is that the new X-ray image — pieced together from 55 smaller X-rays of the 16-by-9-foot canvas — raises more questions than it answers.

The Warren Lasch Conservation Center at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute has helped study and conserve the 1825 work, which has hung inside the Historic Charleston Foundation’s Aiken-Rhett House museum.

Chris Watters, a Clemson assistant who handled the X-ray, said the lighter spots show the greatest concentrations of lead — and where the most paint was applied.

“It allows you to image something you can’t see with your naked eye,” he said. “We’re seeing a pretty dramatic change happen.”

Curator Brandy Culp said the X-ray shows the painting’s earliest version had objects that look much a classical armchair and marble-top center table that survive in the Aiken-Rhett’s furniture collection.

“In X-ray, you see the outline of vase of flowers and a book on that tabletop. It’s also interesting that the drapery changes,” she said.

Conservator Catherine Rogers said the heavy revisions match up with subtle changes that she can now see after cleaning off its layer of grime.

Still, no one knows why.

“Was it dictated by the owner, Mrs. Aiken? Or was the artist trying to work through this composition?” Rogers asked. “To me the X-ray was a little bit surprising, but it adds to a great story.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.