By Isaac Jacobs

From the Spring 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

You’ve heard the stories. A savvy thrift shop buyer on the hunt for a good buy picks up a non-descript landscape painting or some such work of art and years later discovers that a long lost Picasso lies underneath. Imagine the complete opposite. What if under the strokes of a renowned Picasso lie a painting by an unknown artist with little relevance. What value could that present the art world? Much if you consider the techniques necessary to discover the work, distinguish its painterly attributes from the great genius of Picasso and begin to trace the different paintings, repaintings and corrections in time as they occurred on the decades old canvas. A masterstroke of painterly archeological study is what 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 accomplished in the discovery of hidden details in Picasso’s major Blue Period oil painting, Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Woman), 1902. Using multiple modes of light to uncover details hidden beneath the visible surface of Pablo Picasso’s 1902 painting, owned by the AGO in Toronto, Canada, researchers were able to trace the full breadth of an original landscape upon which Picasso’s Miséreuse accroupie was painted. The painting depicts a crouching and cloaked woman, painted in white, blues, grays and greens.

With knowledge of the 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.

While the discovery of multiple iterations or “false-starts” within a single painting is not new for many of the great painters throughout history, including Picasso, tracing the original steps that led to the final work, including the subtlest changes in both paints and technique as the work progressed with a work of this caliber using non-invasive research techniques is a fascinating find for the team. Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of NU-ACCESS explained, “Picasso had no qualms about changing things during the painting process,” Walton said. “Our international team -- consisting of scientists, a curator and a conservator -- has begun to tease apart the complexity of La Miséreuse accroupie, uncovering subtle changes made by Picasso as he worked toward his final vision.”

NU-ACCESS members who are currently studying La Miséreuse accroupie are Walton, Casadio and postdoctoral fellows Emeline Pouyet and Gianluca Pastorelli.

The researchers employed non-invasive methods they adapted to the study of paintings. The state-of-the-art tools enabled the scientists to analyze the painting relatively quickly inside the AGO. The  multidisciplinary international study found that 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. The team also found that Picasso also incorporated the lines of the cliff edges of the original landscape into his subject’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 opted to cover them her cloak in the final work.

By closely observing La Miséreuse accroupie, AGO’s conservation department, now led in the project by senior conservator of paintings Sandra Webster-Cook, had observed distinct textures and contrasting underlying color that peaked through the crack line and were yet contrary to the visible composition.

Following initial X-ray radiography, which was the first non-invasive tool used to uncover hidden information in La Miséreuse accroupie, revealing a horizontal landscape by a different Barcelona painter (whose identity remains unknown) under the visible surface of Picasso’s painting, John Delaney, senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art, began studying the painting with infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging, which records underlying images depending on their relative transparency of the paint layers. Delaney found an arm and a disk under the surface of the painting, his imaging method providing improved visibility of earlier compositional painted elements.

​The key to identifying the separate layers within the painting lie in the distinguishing of pigments and their use on the canvas. 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, which produced grayscale images showing the distribution of elements associated with various pigments of the painting, allowed scientists to analyze 70 percent of the painting in little more than 24 hours. Together with micro-samples extracted from strategic locations, study results, along with further images generated by Delaney’s research, uncovered the distinct 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.

The imaging techniques developed by Northwestern and the National Gallery have allowed Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s assistant curator of modern art, to gain a clearer  understanding of Picasso’s style, influences and even process.

“When we saw the rendering of the lead elemental map, it became clear to me that the arm hidden under the visible surface of La Miséreuse accroupie, is the same as the proper right arm of a crouching woman in a Picasso watercolor recently sold at auction,” Brummel said. The watercolor is titled “Femme assise” (1902).

Images generated by Delaney -- through the selection of different bandwidths in the near infrared -- confirmed the relationship between La Miséreuse accroupie and the watercolor. 

“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,” Delaney said.

“We now are able to develop a chronology within the painting structure to tell a story about the artist’s developing style and possible influences,” said Sandra Webster-Cook, AGO’s senior conservator of paintings.

​Further details about the collaboration’s research findings and the implications on Picasso’s developing style and influences will be revealed June 1 at the American Institute of Conservation annual meeting in Houston.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.

Pablo Picasso. La Miséreuse accroupie, 1902. Oil on canvas, 101.3 x 66 cm (39 7/8 x 26 in.). Art Gallery of Ontario. Anonymous gift, 1963. © Picasso Estate.

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International Research Partnership Uncovers Hidden Work Beneath Picasso's Blue Period Work, La Miséreuse accroupie