Pablo Picasso had a habit of obscuring his artworks’ past lives. When money was tight, the famed Spanish artist reused old canvases, adding layer upon layer of paint, revising the subject and adding texture to the surface. His Blue Period work La Soupe (1902), for instance, features at least 13 distinctive coats of pigment.
In recent years, new X-ray and infrared imaging technologies have allowed art historians and conservators to better reconstruct the modern art pioneer’s creative process. As AJ Dellinger reports for Mic, finds to date include a hidden portrait of a man behind The Blue Room (1901) and a painted-over landscape that Picasso transformed into La Miséreuse Accroupie, or The Crouching Woman (1902).
Now, art sleuths have placed yet another one of Picasso’s works under high-tech scrutiny. As it turns out, Still Life—a Cubist rendering of a guitar, wine bottle and compote—masks an entirely separate still life. Unlike the blocky, grid-like design of the 1922 painting, this earlier work was painted in a neoclassical style. The findings are newly published in the journal SN Applied Sciences.
“Scientific analysis of Picasso’s Still Life was crucial to our understanding of Picasso’s creative process and how he manipulated his paints to achieve different visual effects,” study co-author Kim Muir, a conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, tells artnet News’ Caroline Goldstein.
A black-and-white infrared image of the back of Still Life’s canvas reveals the shadowy outlines of a pitcher and a mug framed against a rectangular shape; both items rest on an ornate chair. Muir and colleagues Allison Langley and Ken Sutherland suspect that the rectangle may be a newspaper, according to the study.
The team is confident that the abandoned work was created by Picasso himself, reports Owen Jarus for Live Science. The scene bears similarities to a drawing, now owned by the Gothenburg Museum of Art in Sweden, that the artist created around the same time.
Though both the original and final images are domestic interior scenes, they were executed in remarkably different styles. Compared with the recognizable figures of a pitcher and a chair in the first image, the final Still Life is linear and abstract. Picasso layered his brushstrokes to create grids of lines and a textured effect on the painting’s surface.
Per a statement, Picasso likely applied a square of thick, lead-based white pigment over the abandoned work. This layer then served as the base for Still Life.
Such an approach “seems somewhat unusual in Picasso’s practice,” the authors write, “as he often painted directly over earlier compositions, allowing underlying forms to show through and influence the final painting.”
Born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881, Picasso split his time between his home country and Paris, where he moved in bohemian social circles of poets and other artists. One of these peers, writer Gertrude Stein, was the original owner of Still Life. In 1949, Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas, sold the work to an art dealer who, in turn, sold it to the Art Institute of Chicago.
In addition to examining the painting, the researchers managed to “recover the intended surface qualities previously obscured by layers of grime, varnish, and discolored overpaint,” says Muir to artnet News. The team hopes that the study will help future restorations of Picasso’s work and aid in future discoveries.
Before Picasso died in 1973, he appears to have hinted at his penchant for hiding old works underneath new ones.
“In the 1950s, he said, ‘You should be doing X-rays of my work, because you’ll find things underneath,’” Kenneth Brummel, a curator of modern art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, told the Toronto Star’s Murray Whyte in 2018. “He didn’t get any more specific, but he urged people to do just that.”