Researchers Discover New Details in Portraits Hidden Under Picasso Paintings

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Beneath some of Picasso’s iconic paintings, researchers are uncovering new details about hidden portraits and compositions.

Why is this important: The finds, featured in a new exhibition, offer clues to the artist’s materials and process early in his career – and how to best preserve his work.

“Technical studies were able to shed light on art historical research to a new level,” says Patricia Favero, Associate Conservator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

  • Favero is part of a team of curators and scientists who have studied three Picassos that are now the subject of an exhibition on the artist’s blue period.
  • Previous studies have used imaging techniques to investigate aspects of these and other paintings on recycled canvas, which Picasso was known to use.
  • The first hint that there was a painting under “The Blue Room” (1901) was spotted over 60 years ago. Part of the texture of the painting reflects the brushstrokes in different directions of the visible composition.

What’s new: By combining data from X-ray, infrared (IR) reflectance imaging spectroscopy, and X-ray fluorescence mapping, a team of researchers from Phillips, the National Gallery of Art, and other institutions were able to see the portrait of a man, indicators of the brush and strokes, and the pigments used by the artist. For example, the presence of mercury suggests that he painted with vermilion.

  • Microanalysis of tiny samples of the paint indicates that most of “The Blue Room” is painted directly over the portrait, without primer, and that Picasso’s palette was becoming more subdued.
Infrared reflectance image (image transformed from the infrared reflectance spectroscopic image cube) showing the portrait of an unknown man under Picasso’s “The Blue Room” (1901), The Phillips Collection, acquired in 1927. The canvas is rotated 90 degrees clockwise. Photo: John Delaney and Kathryn Dooley, National Gallery of Art

With IR reflectance spectroscopy, researchers could see shapes under the woman’s right shoulder and forearm in “Crouching Beggarwoman” (1902).

  • Using X-ray fluorescence scanning, the paint’s chemical elements were mapped, revealing information about the paint’s stages of development – an exposed arm, then later covered.
  • Curators already knew that a landscape – its creator unknown but its color range is similar to Picasso’s – lay beneath the portrait, but scans have provided new details of how the hills in the painting later became the back of the squatting woman.

A map of the elements in the painting “The Soup” (1903) suggests that Picasso changed the shape of the bowl offered to a child by a woman and that he altered the woman’s gesture and the way her hair fell from her forehead.

  • Other imagery tools suggest that the painting was primarily a still life, parts of which were scraped away rather than painted over.

The bottom line: “There’s even more to learn from some of the most studied paintings in the world,” says Favero.

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