Hidden Details Uncovered beneath Surface of Blue Period Picasso

Isaac Kaplan
Feb 20, 2018 11:50PM

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).

A team of researchers using advanced imaging techniques to peer beneath the surface of Pablo Picasso’s La Miséreuse accroupie (1902) have discovered new details about the artist’s process as well as the effaced landscape hiding under his Blue Period masterpiece.

The work, currently held by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), shows a solemn cloaked figure, who kneels with her head tilted downward and eyes closed. But when researchers examined the painting with a technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which can detect elements found in pigments, they found that Picasso had slightly altered the pose of the figure. He had initially painted her with a visible right arm and a hand holding a disc before covering her almost entirely with a cloak.

That original composition appears in another work painted the same year. A curator at the AGO matched the covered over depiction to the right arm of the central figure of Femme assise (1902), a Picasso watercolor from the same year that recently sold at auction.

“We were surprised by how Picasso changed his mind several times as he was painting the composition,” wrote Marc Walton, a research professor at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, which was part of the international partnership researching the work. “It goes to show that even the most brilliant people need to work through problems and sometimes struggle to get it just right,” he added.

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

X-ray fluorescence instrument set up for the scan of La Miséreuse accroupie. © Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Pablo Picasso, La Miséreuse accroupie, 1963. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


La Miséreuse accroupie has fascinated and intrigued researchers for decades. In 1992, conservators at the Canadian museum where the work is on view noticed that the surface texture of the work “seemed at odds with the brush strokes of the figure,” reported by The Guardian. They also noticed fragments of different paint under the cracked surface of the work. An X-ray of the work taken about 30 years ago revealed that Picasso made his painting atop a landscape by a Barcelonan artist. But the technology employed at the time meant that it was difficult to discern the exact forms under the pigment.

Now, advanced techniques employed by the new research have cleared up the picture somewhat by providing additional layers of detail—though the identity of the landscape artist remains a mystery. Researchers found Picasso rotated the underlying landscape 90 degrees, incorporating elements of the cliffs from the original composition into the woman’s back in his own work.

The renewed study of the piece began after Webster-Cook examined the work ahead of its display as part of a forthcoming Blue Period exhibition, opening at the AGO in 2020, and found “surface textures that didn’t match what was visibly seen at the surface nor what was expected from the underlying landscape,” wrote Walton. The discrepancy indicated there was even more to the picture than previously suspected.

Conservators from the AGO reached out to Walton’s team at the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS)—a Mellon grant-funded collaborative partnership by Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago that allows institutions to undertake scientific research.

Walton’s team spent about two weeks with the painting over the spring and summer of 2017, using imaging techniques to scan the painting without damaging the work. A key technique used for such analysis is X-ray fluorescence, which is able to detect the materials used in pigments beneath the surface of a work (such as iron, zinc, or lead), providing grayscale maps of where those elements appear. But while it can only take a relatively short amount to time to a scan a work, Walton and his team spent “innumerable months” processing and analyzing the data to arrive at their conclusions.  

The insight into Picasso’s La Miséreuse accroupie comes after researchers used X-rays to discover the final quarter of a René Magritte’s The Enchanted Pose (1927) in November 2017—a work the artist had cut into four pieces and painted over.

Isaac Kaplan