Metal Blends Offer Clues to Picasso Sculptures’ History

Analysis of bronze and sheet metal sculptures reveals how, when and where works were cast

Researchers used non-invasive analysis to trace the origins of Picasso's bronze sculptures Musee National Picasso-Paris

Pablo Picasso’s paintings, easily identifiable by their angular abstractions and bold brush strokes, grace the walls of the world’s top art museumsbut few realize the Cubist master also had a sporadic, but lifelong passion for sculpture.

Now, thanks to a comprehensive survey conducted by researchers from the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University and the Picasso Museum in Paris, scholars have a better understanding of the artist’s bronzes than ever before.

As Megan Fellman writes for Northwestern Nowthe international team of scientists, art conservators and curators used a non-invasive analysis called X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to study 39 bronzes and 11 painted sheet metal sculptures in the Picasso Museum’s collection.

Using this method, Northwestern and the Art Institute of Chicago have compiled a database of these alloy “fingerprints” for roughly 350 artworks. These measurements, which detail percentages of metal alloys in early 20th-century bronzes, allow researchers to trace the origins of specific works.

“Material evidence from the sculptures themselves can be unlocked by scientific analysis for a deeper understanding of Picasso’s bronze sculpture-making process and the history of artists, dealers, and foundrymen in the production of modern sculpture,” explains Emeline Pouyet, a materials scientist and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern.

The Picasso team measured the relative amounts of copper, tin, zinc and lead in several areas of each sculpture, Science News’ Kate Travis reports. Of the sculptures studied, 17 had foundry marks, which helped the researchers identify metallic "fingerprints" for specific foundries. This data, coupled with archival information, enabled the researchers to trace the origins of works that lack foundry marks.

“A lot of [foundries’] archives are incomplete or nonexistent,” Francesca Casadio, a conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago, tells Travis. She adds that the team’s findings reinforce “why it’s really important to collaborate and how science adds the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Researchers traced five World War II-era sculptures to craftsman Émile Robecchi’s foundry, which was located just south of Paris. Picasso originally modeled these works in plaster, but during the Nazi occupation, he switched to bronze–a durable medium that he felt was more likely to survive the war.

The team also discovered that the alloy composition Robecchi used changed throughout World War II. During a February 17 presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, Casadio attributed this switch to the German occupiers’ appropriation of metals for the war effort.

"The Germans were forcing private individuals and the French government to basically melt down sculptures in the city to retrieve the metal," Casadio tells The New York Times' Kenneth Chang.

In addition to examining Picasso’s bronze sculptures, researchers studied the art giant’s sheet metal sculptures. Their analysis of a 1962 sculpture, Head of a Woman, revealed that Picasso used silver, not copper wire, to create the figure’s facial features. Coupled with the recent discovery of hidden details beneath a 1902 Picasso painting, the team’s research provides new insight into the artist’s creative process.

“We now can begin to write a new chapter in the history of this prolific giant of modern art,” Casadio says in a statement.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.