Before Pablo Picasso upended the art world with his cubist masterpieces, his creations conveyed a decidedly more somber atmosphere. Now, with the help of non-invasive imaging techniques, researchers are looking to a 1902 painting from Picasso's aptly named “blue period”—La Miséreuse Accroupie (The Crouching Beggar)—to gain new insight into the artist’s creative process.
According to a press release, while experts have known there was an underlying image in the painting since 1992, this latest round of testing revealed previously unseen details in a painted-over landscape, as well as a major compositional change.
In its current form, The Crouching Beggar depicts a woman wrapped in heavy blue and blue-green layers. Her gaze is directed downward, and her eyes are closed. Aside from her face, the woman’s body is completely covered, but using tools including infrared reflectance hyperspectral and X-ray fluorescence imaging, the team of experts from Northwestern University, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario (which owns the Picasso piece) showed this was not always the case.
Uncovering The Crouching Beggar’s underlying secret, their work revealed that at one point, Picasso envisioned the beggar grasping a disc in her awkwardly positioned hand.
The latest revelations have left researchers wondering why Picasso eliminated the hand in his final version. In an interview with The Guardian’s Nicola Davis, Marc Walton of Northwestern University questions, “Is it something that is religious but he then decides to paint over because he doesn’t want the connotation in this particular painting?”
Kenneth Brummel, assistant curator of modern art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, offers another possible explanation: Picasso was inspired by the Spanish artist El Greco. As National Geographic’s Michelle Z. Donahue writes, Brummel happened upon a 1590 El Greco painting during a recent trip to Spain. The work, entitled Penitent Magdalene, features nearly the exact same hand positioning as that of The Crouching Beggar, and likely would have been known to Picasso.
“Picasso at this time is young and ambitious, and would say, Yes, I’m the El Greco of Spain,” Brummel tells Donahue.
Beneath this early iteration of The Crouching Beggar is a mysterious mountain scene, which experts initially discovered in 1992. As Science magazine’s Katie Langin explains, at the time, knowledge of this second painting was limited to X-ray radiography testing, which led researchers to attribute the mountain scene to Spanish-Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García.
Now, after analyzing the new findings and identifying the landscape as a depiction of Barcelona’s Parque del Labertino de Horta, Brummel tells Donahue that experts have reason to believe the painting was created by an unknown individual “in Picasso’s orbit but not in his close circle.”
Though Picasso painted over his fellow artist’s work, he appears to have also been inspired by it. According to a press release, Picasso rotated the landscape 90 degrees to the right, then used the lines of the mountains to shape the curves of the woman’s back.