Scientists Discover Hidden Details in Picasso Blue Period Painting

Hidden Details Uncovered in Picasso Painting

X-ray fluorescence instrument set up for the scan of La Miséreuse accroupie, with Emeline Pouyet of Northwestern University (left) and Sandra Webster-Cook of the Art Gallery of Ontario. © Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

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 used multiple modes of light to uncover details hidden 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 AGO in Toronto, Canada, depicts a crouching and cloaked woman, painted in white, blues, grays, and greens.

With knowledge of an 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.”

Hidden Details Uncovered in Picasso Blue Period Painting

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.

Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of NU-ACCESS, will discuss 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 will present a full-scale reproduction of Picasso’s iterative adaptations leading to the final painting. The briefing, “Technology Peers Into Picasso’s Art,” will be held at 9 a.m. CST in Room 6, Level 3, of the Austin Convention Center.

[A separate study of Picasso’s work in three dimensions will be discussed at the same press briefing. Francesca Casadio, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science and co-director of NU-ACCESS, will talk about the findings from an unprecedented study of five decades of Picasso’s bronzes in the collection of the Musée national Picasso-Paris.]

“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 studying “La Miséreuse accroupie” are Walton, Casadio and postdoctoral fellows Emeline Pouyet and Gianluca Pastorelli.

The 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 multidisciplinary international 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, now led in this project by senior conservator of paintings Sandra Webster-Cook, had observed distinct textures and contrasting underlying colors 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.

Hidden Details Revealed in Picasso Painting

Distribution maps of a few elements characteristic of the pigments present in the different paint layers of La Miséreuse accroupie. © Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS)

John Delaney, a 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.

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 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 better understand Picasso’s style, influences, and 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.

Computer scientist to discuss the use of algorithms in Picasso study at February 17 AAAS session

In a related scientific session the afternoon of February 17 at the AAAS annual meeting, Northwestern’s Aggelos Katsaggelos will explain how he has paired signal processing technology with data collected from the advanced imaging tools used to extract images hidden beneath the surface of “La Miséreuse accroupie.” In addition to presenting the general findings of the investigation by the NU-ACCESS team, Katsaggelos will highlight the use of super-resolution approaches to estimate high-resolution XRF images and how these data are used in the art historical interpretations of the painting.

Katsaggelos, the Joseph Cummings Professor in the McCormick School’s department of electrical engineering and computer science and an NU-ACCESS faculty member, used computational methods to reconstruct the missing pixels of the X-ray fluorescence signal from the acquisition of only approximately 25 percent of the total pixels.

Katsaggelos will speak at the scientific session “Analyzing Picasso: Scientific Innovation, Instrumentation and Education,” to be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. CST Saturday, February 17, at the AAAS meeting. The symposium, co-organized by Walton, will be held in Room 17B of the Austin Convention Center. In addition to Katsaggelos, the event will include two other speakers discussing different aspects of Picasso’s work.

8 Comments on "Scientists Discover Hidden Details in Picasso Blue Period Painting"

  1. Jane Maryann Galitello | September 14, 2019 at 9:22 pm | Reply

    i have a Picasso blue period painting on cardboard, during his poor time, I belive it is a proof the org first and then placed on wood of the man women and boy Tradegy its date got damaged some as i had for over fifty years you can feel the spirit of him in this, and has marking on it, look like letters and creature in back of carfboard almost look like a dragon with a boy on it, i love it and it is signed by him I would like to sell it to someone who loves it as i do, I just feel it , let me know what you think i have two look at it a reg painter who said it is worth looking into not a print, and another but they did not realize it was done on cardboard and it have sort of a line or waffle effect in it as i check out other he did wtith paint on carboard and it had the same effect, I am older not feeling that well but bless to be going and doing yet i hope it is worth allot of money for i want to put uo a center to help others ib the days we are in and i as welk gifted by the lord in the spitrual as i ddid and use my gifts to helo all who god place ib ny life for over 30 year not and started late, doing the work but gifted as a child and did much, please let me =know if you would God love and God bless you and Picasso would have loved to meet him in person.

  2. Jane Maryann Galitello | September 14, 2019 at 9:25 pm | Reply

    ygiftoflife@hotmail, com the paiting i do have is signed by him as well and dated yet the date gpt damaged for i did so by trying to put in a wrong frame and all and i as well wrapped it in some materail at one time i have had it for over fifty years now. love it as it is so real you can feel it ,

  3. Marianna galitello H | April 20, 2020 at 9:43 pm | Reply

    Would you get back to me on a Picasso Painting, looks like the org painting done and placed on cardboard. org and blues of Tragedy man women boy, have had for over 55 years. has date and signed by him yet i moved much in life and wrapped it up did not realize i take most of the date off , has marking want to sell now. let me know

  4. Jmaryann Galitello | May 23, 2020 at 11:06 am | Reply

    Contact me if interested

  5. Maryann Galitello | October 30, 2020 at 11:44 pm | Reply

    how do i get together with you to bring the painting of Picasso with me for you to look at and xray to see if org or not do not think it is a print for it flake and date got off most of it by me putting some sort of plastic over it one time had for 57 years now and moved allot love him he just has something about the painting, i like to know about it with you all. since i am not gifted as you are to be expert in this. i think he is the first and painted and put on the cardboard maybe decoupage for he was known to be first in this i read recent. can be let me know ok ready me at my email

  6. Hello. I would like to get with you to have a Picasso i have for over 55 years , it is on cardboard. I believe in the poor time of his life it is
    Tragedy signed had date you can still see a tiny of it as i foolish wrapped in some plastic and it took off the paint of this , the painting as marks like a MOM o n it and other markings. it is on cardboard and in the back almost a image of a boy on a dragon where can it bring this to be stu died i live in the Tampa Fl area. thank you and God bless. Janemary ann Y

  7. Marianna Galitello | June 30, 2021 at 5:36 pm | Reply

    I have this proof and want to know who is interested in it to know more of it and now older will sell it love it and can not i feel part from it Marianna

  8. JMarianna Galitello | November 3, 2021 at 6:43 pm | Reply

    I have been trying to contact Picasso granddaughter or someone in the art knowledge to x ray the painting I have of Picasso painted on cardboard had for over 55 years now let me know it is signed and dated thank you at 7272339250

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