Looking at a Pablo Picasso painting could be confusing itself. But scientists using x-rays have revealed secrets behind both paintings and sculptures of the famed artist. The Northwestern University researchers traced the exact composition of metals in five bronze casts to a specific foundry in World War II-era Paris. Another team even revealed a hidden painting behind the artist’s blue-period masterpiece, La Misereuse Accroupie.
“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)”
Image: 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.
“We can give a richer history of art that’s enhanced by scientific findings,” said Francesca Casadio, Executive Director of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute of Chicago, at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences in Austin, Texas.
Picasso painted La Misereuse Accroupie in 1902, and it is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The researchers used a non-invasive technique called x-ray fluorescent spectroscopy to analyse the painting. It turns out that the artist painted his work on top of another unknown artist’s painting of a landscape, and incorporated the landscape’s forms into the woman’s figure. You can sort of see the landscape by flipping the painting 90 degrees to the left.
He also made a change to the painting halfway through — he painted the woman’s arm and then covered it with the cloak.
“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)”
Another team shed light on some of the artist’s sculptures (literally). Previously, researchers didn’t know the foundry where five of his casts came from. They used the same x-ray fluorescence spectrometry method to create fingerprints of the metals in the sculptures. This revealed that the metal came from Picasso’s collaborator Emile Robecchi’s foundry in southern Paris, around 1941-1942.
“Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme de profil (Marie-Thérèse), Boisgeloup, 1931, bronze, sculpture, Musée national Picasso – Paris, (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris), (C) Succession Picasso 2018 In its study of this bronze, “Head of a Woman, in Profile,” cast without a foundry mark in Paris in the 1940s, a research team from the Musée national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) traced the work to the foundry of Émile Robecchi, a lesser-known collaborator of Picasso’s, and dated the bronze cast to 1941.”
Particle physics and art seem to go hand-in-hand, surprisingly. Even the Louvre has a particle accelerator on hand to analyse works, reports the BBC. But this research is mainly exciting for what it reveals about Picasso himself.
“If there is something that should come across, it’s how resourceful artists are,” said Julio Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Northwestern University. “They will use everything at their disposal. They know how to operate with constraints.”