When Pablo Picasso was in the seventh decade of his life, he joked about how x-ray technology will one day reveal a lost work underneath one of his early paintings. Now, over sixty years later, we've once again reached a point such a scenario is not only plausible but completely realistic.
Although the technology required went far beyond simple x-rays, researchers were able to discover a "hidden" piece of art history in stunning new detail when they applied hyper-modern tools to one of the Picasso Blue Period paintings, La miséreuse accroupie. Underneath the layers of paint was an unidentified landscape, a totally unknown work of art made by someone other than Picasso.
Today, we will discuss what this recent discovery means to our understanding of Picasso's art, as well as how much insight into his creative process we've been granted following such an analysis. Furthermore, staying in the spirit of shedding new light on arguably the greatest painter of all time, we will also take a closer look at Picasso's Blue Period, the first major stage of the Spaniard's career.
Painted in 1902, Pablo Picasso’s La Misereuse Accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) is a study of a figure wrapped in a mustard-colored blanket and with a white scarf. However, the popular idea of how Pablo's portraits hide much more than they reveal proved to be truer in this case than anyone even dreamed.
In order to investigate the canvas, researchers performed a series of spectroscopy scans on La Misereuse Accroupie and the fiber-optic reflectance spectroscopy scanned the painting at various wavelengths, from the near-infrared to the infrared. Such a method revealed the precise pigments Picasso had used on the canvas.
A team of engineers then conducted additional scans with a portable x-ray fluorescence tool that showed the elements of each layer of pigment in the painting. This resulted in detailed greyscale maps that made it possible to see the incremental changes Picasso made to his composition at any point of its existence.
The multi-pronged and highly scientific investigation of The Crouching Beggar's canvas showed that the innovative modernist was inspired by the dominant lines of an underlying landscape, a mysterious artwork that was probably painted by an unknown artist. It appears to be a depiction of the Parque del Labertino de Horta in Barcelona.
The next question came quite naturally - why would Pablo choose to re-use another artist’s canvas? This decision may be explained by economic necessity, but a more probable reason might be the fact Picasso found deep inspiration in the lines of the previous image. After all, it's a well-known fact Pablo often re-used canvases with such a state of mind.
The analysis also exposed several changes to the posture of the woman depicted in the final painting, presenting us with pictorial directions Picasso ultimately abandoned. Such a discovery goes directly after our deeply-rooted habit of observing works of great artists as images that were meant to be that way from the beginning.
Needless to say, this kind of technical art history holds so much potential that it could rock the entire science to its core. Tools now available to art historians provide a whole new level of analysis that goes so far beyond monographs and exhibitions that it's almost frightening.
La Misereuse Accroupie was painted by Picasso in 1902, during the early phases of his famous Blue Period. This stage of Pablo's creativity took place between the years of 1900 and 1904, at a time he painted essentially monochromatic pieces in shades of blue and blue-green.
This period's works perfectly reflect the painter's experience of relative poverty and instability, so many of these somber paintings feature beggars, street urchins, the frail and the blind. Picasso had no fixed studio and nothing even resembling a reliable source of income, so the recently established scenario of a reused canvas definitely fits well with what we know about the artist's early life.
Establishing a reliable time frame in which the Picasso Blue Period took place can be challenging as the artist lived in relative poverty and moved around quite a bit, leaving works of art all around Spain and France. The period's starting point is uncertain - many art historians agree that it either started in Spain in the spring of 1901, or in Paris in the second half of the same year.
A relative certainty is that one of Picasso's main influences was the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, who took his life at a Paris cafe on February 17, 1901, so many will tell you the Blue Period's true origins can be traced to this date. Yet, despite some quotes Pablo himself made, art historian Helene Seckel has written the following in one of her analysis:
While we might be right to retain this psychologizing justification, we ought not to lose sight of the chronology of events: Picasso was not there when Casagemas committed suicide in Paris ... it was only in the fall that this dramatic event emerged in his painting, with several portraits of the deceased.
On the other side, searching for the stage's ending is far less problematic. As Picasso's bout with depression gradually ended and his psychological state improved, he moved towards more joyful, vibrant works, and emphasized the use of pinks in order to express the shift in mood and subject matter. Portrait of Suzanne Bloch from 1904 is one of the final paintings from the Blue Period, after which Pablo's Rose Period finally commenced.
Besides being strongly struck by his friend's suicide, Picasso's Blue Period was significantly influenced by his visit to a woman's prison St. Lazare in Paris, where nuns served as guards. The Two Sisters is a great example of this fact, as well as how Picasso used to mix daily reality with Christian iconography.
Somber works that resulted from the Picasso Blue Period are now some of his most popular artworks - although it should be noted Pablo had difficulty selling them at the time. Starting in the latter part of 1901, he painted several posthumous portraits of Casagemas, a series that culminated in the gloomy allegorical painting La Vie. The same pictorial mood of this artwork can be located in the well-known etching The Frugal Repast (1904) and The Blindman's Meal (1903).
Probably the most iconic work of art from the Blue Period is The Old Guitarist, an oil painting Picasso created in late 1903 – early 1904. It depicts an old blind man with threadbare clothing, weakly hunched over his guitar as he's playing in the streets of Barcelona.
It should also be noted that, at this time, Picasso was very open to artistic events around him and many of these had massive impacts on the way he viewed art. The exhibition of Fauve works, particularly those of Henri Matisse, stands out as the avant-garde value of these paintings inspired Picasso to explore new directions himself.
Following the conclusion of the Blue Period, the painter commenced his famed Rose Period. However, it should be noted that Picasso's depression didn't end when the pink hue started to dominate many of his paintings. In fact, we should mention that the painter's contemporaries did not even see this as a new stage of the artist's career, instead of looking at both the Blue and the Rose Period as a single entity.
Picasso Blue Period remains one of the most interesting stages of his career despite the fact it has next to nothing to do with Cubism and iconic works of art like Guernica. The period's desolation of social outsiders, whether in the form of prisoners, beggars, circus people or despairing people in general, makes this time of Pablo's creativity a vital chink in the chain of his career as it allows us to understand the man before he was exposed to all the fame and money his subsequent artworks eventually brought him.
Furthermore, if we are to take a far less intimate perspective on the matter, Picasso Blue Period is arguably the most important artistic and intellectual avant-garde moment found at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Editors’ Tip: Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings & Sculpture: The Blue Period, 1902-1904
This volume is part of the Picasso Project series, the most comprehensive catalogues of the master's work. This volume catalogues and illustrates Picasso's work during 1902-04 in Barcelona and Paris. Each volume contains an overview introduction and a chronology of the period. Each entry contains titles in English and French (Spanish and Catalan for the early years); date and place of creation, when known; dimensions of the work; location of the collection which owns the work, if public; selected publications in which the work has been illustrated; a bibliography of works that are cited; and concordances to Zervos, the Musée Picasso, Paris, the Museo Picasso, Barcelona and other standard reference works. There are also citations of sales of works from selected auctions.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso - The Soup (detail), 1902-1903, via wikimedia.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.