Researchers used multiple modes of light to uncover details 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 Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, depicts a crouching and cloaked woman, painted in white, blues, grays, and greens.
“Picasso had no qualms about changing things during the painting process,” says Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of the Northwesern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS),
“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.”
Walton discussed the collective new findings at a February 17 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas. He presented a full-scale reproduction of Picasso’s iterative adaptations leading to the final painting.
What’s under the final painting?
Researchers used 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 museum. The key findings of the study include:
- 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’s conservation department had observed distinct textures and contrasting underlying color that peaked 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.
John Delaney, senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art, then studied the painting with infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging, which records underlying images depending on their relative transparency of the paint layers. He found an arm and a disk under the surface of the painting. Delaney’s imaging method provides improved visibility of earlier compositional painted elements.
Iron, chromium, and lead
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 that Picasso took.
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.
“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,” says Kenneth Brummel, the AGO’s assistant curator of modern art. That watercolor is titled “Femme assise” (1902).
Images that Delaney generated—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 says.
“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,” says Sandra Webster-Cook, AGO’s senior conservator of paintings.