Study reveals hidden painting beneath a Picasso masterpiece

Pioneering imaging techniques have allowed researchers to peer beneath the surface of a painting by Pablo Picasso, uncovering not only a number of changes made during the work’s composition, but an entirely different painting by another artist.

Study reveals hidden painting beneath a Picasso masterpiece

Work done by a collaboration of different institutions in the US and Canada investigated the composition of Picasso’s 1902 painting La Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar), made during the artist’s Blue Period. Previous work using X-ray radiography had hinted at a different painting beneath the artwork, so the team used a range of imaging techniques, including infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and then an X-ray fluorescence imaging, to dig deeper.

What they found was a landscape, likely by another Barcelona painter. Not only had Picasso painted over this separate artwork, rotated 90 degrees to the right, but he even incorporated aspects of it into his final work. Cliff edges in the original landscape, for example, were made into the lines of the titular beggar’s back.

“It is not unprecedented that Picasso painted over other people’s canvases (others are known), however it is rarer than his typical practice of painting over his own work,” Marc Walton, one of the leads on the project, and a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, told Alphr.

“We speculate that Picasso reused canvases to be economical with his precious material resources that were expensive for an artist who was young and still at the beginning of his career.”

The investigation is a partnership between Northwestern University and Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The results are being presented today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)’s annual meeting in Texas.

The infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging, carried out by the National Gallery of Art, works by recording underlying images on the canvas, depending on the relative transparency of the paint layers. This allows the researchers to glean changes to the painting made by Picasso, with an earlier version including beggar’s right arm, holding a disk. In the final version of the painting, this arm is covered with a cloak.

The X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning, undertaken by the NU-ACCESS scientists, works by producing grayscale images that show the distribution of elements associated with various pigments of the painting. Along with micro-samples extracted from different parts of the painting, the team was able to understand the composition steps taken by Picasso. The different chemical pigments reinforced the presence of the woman’s right arm and hand beneath the cloak in the finished work.

“After seeing the lead map from the XRF scanning, we were able to make a map of pigment lead white, which, when overlaid with the false color infrared, gives a more complete image of an upstretched arm, sleeve, disk and fingers,” said John Delaney, senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art.

Artistic archeology

The results reveal the archeology of this particular Picasso painting. Could they set a precedent for how we delve into other artworks?

“Yes,” says Walton. “One of the main research foci of my group is to develop techniques to probe a painting’s stratigraphy [layers] non invasively and over a wide field of view. By using modalities of light from across the electromagnetic spectrum, each wavelength probes a different depth of the painted surface, thus allowing us to unpack the painted structure and learn from these data how the artist created the composition.”

As well as building a clearer picture of Picasso’s process, the team believes the investigation offers valuable insight into how the artist’s styles and influences developed. The hidden arm of the beggar, for example, is thought to be similar in composition to the arm of another crouched woman in a different Picasso painting.

Precise details about pigment chemistry may be a subject for hardcore art historians, but it’s interesting to know the woman in La Miséreuse accroupie is built around the shape of a cliff edge; that something as soft as a crumpled cloak is carved from a picture of stone.

Image credit: Art Gallery of Ontario

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