Hidden in a Picasso Blue Period Painting
An international partnership of the Northwestern University/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, Washington, has used multiple modes of light to uncover details hidden beneath the visible surface of Pablo Picasso’s painting “La Miséreuse accroupie” (The Crouching Woman), a major work from the artist’s Blue Period. The 1902 oil painting, owned by the AGO in Toronto, Canada, depicts a crouching and cloaked woman, painted in white, blues, grays and greens.
With knowledge of an underlying landscape revealed long ago by X-ray radiography at the AGO, researchers used non-invasive portable imaging techniques, including infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging adapted by the National Gallery of Art and then an X-ray fluorescence imaging instrument developed at Northwestern, to detail buried images connected to other works by Picasso — including a watercolor recently sold at auction — as well as the presence of a landscape likely by another Barcelona painter underneath “La Miséreuse accroupie.”
Picasso painted over another painter’s work after rotating it 90 degrees to the right, using some of the landscape forms in his own final composition of “La Miséreuse accroupie.” Picasso incorporated the lines of the cliff edges into the woman’s back, for example. Picasso also made a major compositional change, the researchers report. The artist initially painted the woman with a right arm and hand holding a disk but then covered them with her cloak in the final work.
By closely observing “La Miséreuse accroupie,” AGO had observed distinct textures and contrasting underlying color that peeked through the crack lines and did not match the visible composition. X-ray radiography was the first non-invasive tool used to uncover hidden information in “La Miséreuse accroupie;” it revealed a horizontal landscape by a different Barcelona painter, whose identity remains unknown, under the visible surface of Picasso’s painting.
For a more detailed understanding of the repositioned arm, NU-ACCESS scientists next investigated the painting using images generated by their X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner. The NU-ACCESS team traveled twice to the AGO in Canada with their portable tools for the study.
This system produces grayscale images showing the distribution of elements associated with various pigments of the painting. The scientists were able to analyze 70 percent of the painting in 24 hours. Together with micro-samples extracted from strategic locations, the XRF results, along with further images generated by Delaney from the hyperspectral reflectance, reveal the steps of creation taken by Picasso.
The iron- and chromium-based pigments of the surface layer correlated with the painting’s current structure and its palette of mostly blues (painted with the iron-based Prussian blue and with ultramarine, Picasso’s Blue Period blue of choice) and yellow-greens (painted with chromium-based yellows). The elemental maps of cadmium- and lead-based pigments, however, revealed the presence of the woman’s right arm and hand beneath the visible surface.
Questions raised by this research on Picasso’s influence and style during his Blue Period will be further explored in a Picasso Blue Period exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in 2020 through 2021.