Secrets hide beneath AGO Picasso painting

TORONTO and HOUSTON – In Houston, Texas, at the American Institute for Conservation conference, Sandra Webster-Cook, Senior Painting Conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), presented new research findings on a masterwork by Pablo Picasso from the AGO collection: La Soupe(1902-3). The findings stem from a 3-year technical art history study, co-led by Webster-Cook and the AGO’s Assistant Curator of Modern Art, Kenneth Brummel. Shedding light on decades-old questions, the cross-disciplinary research uncovered significant compositional changes to the painting and deepens knowledge about Picasso’s Blue Period from 1901-1904.

Gifted to the AGO in 1983 by Margaret Dunlap Crang, the visible surface of La Soupe depicts a child reaching toward a bowl that is held by a solemnly posed woman. This composition is painted predominantly in shades of blue, white and earth tones. Cross-disciplinary research has revealed that Picasso made significant changes to the painting’s composition.

Innovative collaboration and cutting-edge science at centre of major exhibition of Picasso Blue Period works co-organized by the AGO and The Phillips Collection coming in 2020

Picasso’s La Soupe masterpiece.

“For a long time, it’s been clear that the thick textured paint of La Soupe held secrets below,” says Webster-Cook. “We knew from the x-radiograph and even looking carefully with the naked eye that another painting had been scraped down before La Soupe was painted. But exactly what was beneath the surface was a mystery. Thanks to sophisticated imaging and analysis, we’ve unlocked those secrets.”

Scans reveal hidden figure and other changes

Scans of La Soupe (1902-3) show that hidden beneath the painting is an outline of a woman shown from the back that is positioned underneath and between the woman and child on the visible surface. Picasso blocked out this underlying figure, abandoned it, and then used its outer edges to form the contours of the child and the woman in the final composition. He also covered this original figure with the steam rising above the bowl of soup. The shape of this figure relates to several drawings and paintings made by Picasso in Barcelona in 1902, revealing aspects of his creative process while assisting Brummel and Webster-Cook to place La Soupe within the broader chronology of the Blue Period.

“This unique research project that involves art history, conservation and the sciences has enriched our understanding of Picasso’s artistic process. We now have a better understanding of how La Soupe relates to Picasso’s other drawings and paintings of this period,” said Kenneth Brummel, Assistant Curator of Modern Art at the AGO.

Other changes in the painting’s composition revealed by the scans include modifications made to the hand of the woman holding the bowl as well as the repositioning of the child’s head and foot. In addition, the scans also revealed a painted amphora, a ceramic jar, beneath the surface in the space between the woman and the child on the visible surface. All of these changes relate to preparatory drawings and paintings Picasso made around the same time as La Soupe.

A cross-disciplinary research project

Inspired by technical studies of other Picasso Blue Period works undertaken by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and other institutions, Brummel and Webster-Cook sought out the assistance of John Delaney, Senior Imaging Scientist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Delaney used cutting-edge imaging technology, called hyperspectral infrared reflectography, to look beneath the surface of La Soupe in a new way.

“This project built upon my previous experience of successfully using hyperspectral infrared reflectography to reveal underlying compositions in Blue Period paintings by Picasso in the National Gallery’s collection,” Delaney said. “Due to the small size of La Soupe, though, this study required more detailed spectral images than previous projects in order to more clearly see Picasso’s changes in the position of the bowl and the woman’s hands.”

To complement this research, Brummel and Webster-Cook applied to the NU-ACCESS research program, co–directed by Marc Walton and Francesca Casadio from Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts. Their portable x-ray fluorescence technology allowed the AGO researchers to see in detail the chemical elements in the painting and the distribution of paint pigments.

“The project highlights the value of cutting-edge scientific tools and international collaborations in advancing discoveries in art to unlock the material composition and technical details of Picasso’s creative process,” said Marc Walton, research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of NU-ACCESS. “Using the layered information from the painting we can follow Picasso as he worked toward his final vision.”

Referring to another change, Webster-Cook states that “X-ray fluorescence revealed that the hair of the woman depicted in La Soupe was lighter and a different shape before Picasso painted it with blues and blacks.”

Research builds on La Miséreuse accroupie (1902) findings

The research presented by Webster-Cook in Houston today builds on research presented in February 2018 about another major Blue Period work by Picasso in the AGO’s collection: La Miséreuse accroupie, a painting of a crouched woman who wears a cloak that is dramatically rendered in blues, grays and greens. The AGO has been aware of an underlying painting since radiography revealed a landscape in 1992. Research by the AGO’s Kenneth Brummel  and  curator Dr. Susan Behrends Frank of The Phillips Collection suggests that  the hidden landscape may be a depiction of the Labyrinth Park of Horta and perhaps by an artist from Barcelona, where Picasso had only returned after spending more than 7 months in Paris.

Scans completed by John Delaney and NU-ACCESS show that Picasso incorporated the landscape of this underlying painting into his own composition, matching the woman’s back to the hills on the right side of the canvas. The analysis also reveals that Picasso had originally painted the crouching woman with an exposed right arm, her hand uplifted, holding a circular piece of bread. Picasso abandoned this descriptive element, ultimately covering the arm, hand and bread with a cloak.

“When we saw the rendering of the lead elemental map and compared it to the hyperspectral images, it became clear that the arm hidden under the visible surface of La Miséreuse accroupie is the same as the right arm of a crouching woman in a Picasso watercolor (Femme assise, circa 1902) recently sold at auction,” Brummel said.  Brummel and Frank also determined that the awkward position and shape of the right arm overpainted in La Miséreuse accroupie can be related to a major painting of Mary Magdalen by the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco (1541-1614) that was well known in Barcelona.

“The information gleaned from these advanced technical studies has deepened our understanding of these Picasso masterpieces and will serve as the foundation for an exhibition on the Blue Period in 2020-2021 co-organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and The Phillips Collection,” Brummel said.

This project is an international collaboration between the Art Gallery of Ontario, Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Research conducted by NU-ACCESS was generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Located in Toronto, Canada’s largest city of 5.9 million, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is one of the largest art museums in North America. The AGO’s collection of close to 95,000 works ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art such as Untilled by Pierre Huyghe to European masterpieces such as Peter Paul Rubens’s The Massacre of The Innocents; from the vast collection by the Group of Seven to works by established and emerging Indigenous Canadian artists; with a photography collection that tracks the impact of the medium with deep holdings of works by artists such as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus; and with focused collections in Gothic boxwood miniatures and Western and Central African art. Drawing on this collection—as well as collaborations with museums around the world—the AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, taking special care to showcase diverse and underrepresented artists. A major expansion designed by Frank Gehry in 2008 with lead support from the family of Ken Thomson makes the AGO a highly-photographed architectural landmark. Visit and follow @AGOToronto to learn more.The Art Gallery of Ontario is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO members, donors and private-sector partners.

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 — Samantha Chater