How science is uncovering the secrets of Picasso

New technology has revealed clues to the artist’s process in 'La Miséreuse accroupie'
By Adam McDowell - Published on February 28, 2018
La Miséreuse accroupie by Picasso
Detail from Picasso’s La Miséreuse accroupie, which has been part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection since 1963. (AGO)

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​For almost a century, perhaps no one other than Pablo Picasso knew what lay beneath his 1902 painting La Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Woman).

The Art Gallery of Ontario, home to the painting since 1963, discovered in the early ’90s that under the crouching woman was another work entirely: X-rays conducted in-house revealed a hilly park scene that Picasso had not created. The young artist, it seems, had rotated the canvas 90 degrees and painted his Mary Magdalene figure on top of the park, using the contours of the landscape to suggest the shape of the woman’s body.

Now, thanks to advances in imaging technology, a team of U.S. and Ontario scientists, art historians, and conservators has been able to see beneath the surface layer of oil paint: under the woman’s cloak are traces of earlier shapes — the woman’s arm and her fingers, holding a disc-shaped piece of bread.

“There is unrelated colour peeking through the crack lines,” said Sandra Webster-Cook, conservator of historic and modern paintings at the AGO. “There’s texture that doesn’t relate to the surface image. So we had a sense that more was going on.”

Back in 2015, at a conference in Barcelona focused on Picasso’s Blue Period (1901 to 1904), Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s assistant curator for modern art, and Webster-Cook were able to speak with U.S.-based experts about the possibility of applying state-of-the-art imaging techniques to La Miséreuse. The AGO applied to two separate teams; both accepted the request.  

A team from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., led by imaging scientist John Delaney, scrutinized La Miséreuse using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging, a technology developed in the 1980s to remotely collect images of the surfaces of planets. Delaney has since adapted the technology to record the differences in reflectivity between various paint pigments. By focusing on one narrow band of a painting at a time, imaging scientists can “see” through the paint layers and build up a multilayered representation of the strokes that have been covered over.

Through the hyperspectral imaging, the arm and bread of La Miséreuse came to light as never before: “We could see the white [paint] peeking through, but we never saw it as fingers,” Webster-Cook said.

Another acquaintance the AGO staffers had made in Barcelona, Francesca Casadio, of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), later travelled twice to Toronto with an X-ray fluorescence scanner. The portable scanner can detect telltale elements in various pigments — for example, the lead in the white paint that Picasso used in La Miséreuse’s arm. Imaging scientists can then use software to synthesize this information into detailed greyscale images of paint layers that are otherwise invisible.

“The imaging is non-invasive; that’s what’s magical about it,” Webster-Cook said. And the X-ray fluorescence scanner, unlike older technologies, is portable, meaning conservators don’t have to take the painting to it.

After analyzing and reconciling the data from the two forms of imaging, the AGO and its partners ended up with a more robust picture of the stages of Picasso’s composition.

But they still have some unanswered questions. Who, for example, painted the landscape that Picasso covered up? It appears to depict the Jardin Labarint d’Horta in Barcelona. Given the park’s proximity to an art academy, it seems likely the painter was a student there. Brummel is working through various possible candidates while the scientific analysis continues. “We think that this is an artist who is not particularly in [Picasso’s] close circle, but someone in his orbit,” Brummel said. “When we do have the results of the pigment samples, we might be able to determine: Was this a nocturnal scene? A diurnal scene? What were the pigments? Who would have had access to those pigments?

“It might have to remain conjectural. We might just have to say, ‘This was a younger artist in Barcelona, probably enrolled at the fine-arts academy.’”

As for why Picasso reused a canvas in the first place, Webster-Cook said, “We know it’s not uncommon for artists to reuse canvases, especially when they’re poor.”

The artist certainly was impoverished when he painted La Miséreuse during his youthful Blue Period. But there seems to have been more to it than that. Webster-Cook noted that Picasso continued to repaint canvases as his career was taking off, although he could by then easily have afforded to use a fresh surface each time. And he often left traces of the earlier painting showing through, Webster-Cook said, “like he couldn’t let go of the earlier composition.”

This and other mysteries may be revealed eventually. The AGO will partner with the Phillips Collection in Washington for an exhibition in 2020-21 that will show the public what high-tech imaging has revealed about Picasso’s Blue Period.

In the meantime, the AGO’s other Picasso painting from the period, La Soupe (The Soup), will also be examined. What’s in the bowl? Stay tuned: it could be more than meets the eye.

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