AUSTIN—Hidden beneath the brush strokes of Pablo Picasso’s 1902 oil painting La Miséreuse accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) lies the work of another Barcelona artist. And the underlying work seems to have inspired some of Picasso’s artistry. Mountains in the original painting—a landscape scene—became the outline of the back of the subject in Picasso’s work, which depicts a crouching, cloaked woman.
Experts have known about the hidden image since 1992, when the underlying layers of the painting were first probed using x-ray radiography. But new work, using modern imaging techniques, is revealing more detail—not only about the original painting, but also about Picasso’s. Researchers discovered another hidden layer: Under the woman’s cloak, Picasso painted an image of her hand clutching a piece of bread, the team announced here today at the annual meeting AAAS, which publishes Science.
The discovery allows us “to look inside Picasso’s head and get a sense of how he was making decisions as he was painting the canvas,” says Marc Walton, a cultural heritage scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a lead researcher on the study. “He reworked, he labored on painting this individual element, but then chose to abandon it at the end.”
During recent conservation work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto—where La Miséreuse accroupie is housed—conservator Sandra Webster-Cook noticed colors and textures “peeking through the crack lines” that didn’t match up with what was on the painting’s surface. She wondered if it was part of the underlying landscape image or if it was something else, so she and curator Kenneth Brummel, asked experts in noninvasive imaging techniques to dig deeper below the painting’s surface.
First up was John Delaney, an imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who took snapshots of the painting using hyperspectral infrared reflectography, a technique that involves shining light of different wavelengths on an object—some of which probe deeper than others. (Paint becomes transparent at certain wavelengths, depending on what it’s made of). After analyzing the light reflected off the painting, he could see the original landscape image—but he could also see, for the first time, Picasso’s hidden hand. It “was exciting for us to discover that” Picasso made changes to his painting, Webster-Cook says.
To get a more detailed look at the hidden hand, Walton and his colleagues analyzed the painting using macro x-ray fluorescence imaging. The instrument, which zaps a painting with x-rays, allows researchers to see what chemical elements—lead, cadmium, iron—are present in different parts of the painting, not only at the surface but also in deeper layers. And that’s useful because it can provide a window into nonsurface layers and tell experts about the colors used to paint them. There’s a lot of lead, for instance, in the white paint that Picasso used—and the hidden hand, painted with white, was particularly visible in the image showing where lead-based paint was applied, the team reported.
This type of imaging isn’t new, but the instrumentation is. In the past, the technique could only be done in a lab outfitted with expensive equipment. Walton and his colleagues designed a “simple, do it yourself type of kit” that’s easy to bring to an art gallery and only costs $1000, assuming a researcher already has a hand-held x-ray reflectance spectrometer (common at many cultural heritage institutions, Walton says). Many institutions don’t “want a work of art to travel, so we can now bring the techniques to the museum,” he says.
It’s “phenomenal” work—both in terms of what it reveals about Picasso’s artistry and the development of new technology, says Jennifer Mass, a cultural heritage scientist at the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art in Philadelphia who has done similar imaging work on another one of Picasso’s paintings but was not involved in the new research. “It’s quite an advance in the field of what’s possible inside a museum.”
It’s also sparked new lines of inquiry into the painting’s history. Brummel, who traveled to Barcelona 2 weeks ago on an investigative trip, is trying to unravel who painted the scene that Picasso brushed over. He figured out that it depicts a location near Barcelona. And information about what kinds of paints were used, which is currently being compiled with the new data, will tell him about the painter’s palette and whether it was a daytime or nighttime scene—information that “will be key to [help] figure out who painted it and when,” he says.