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 ’s The Enchanted Pose
(1927) in November 2017—a work the artist had cut into four pieces and painted over.