Infrared imaging reveals hidden Picasso

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    The Blue Room, 1901 (left) and the hidden painting (right).
    The Phillips Collection

    The starving artist in a garret may be a cliché, but it exists for a reason: many artists we consider famous today struggled for years before reaching fame — if they even ever got to that point. A sad side effect of this is that sometimes, they didn’t even necessarily have money for new canvases — instead having to paint over existing works in order to create something new.

    One such artist is Pablo Picasso. In 1901, early on in his expressionist blue period, when he was undergoing a bout of depression, the then-20-year-old artist painted a picture he called The Blue Room, depicting a woman bathing.

    It has long been suspected that Picasso painted The Blue Room over an earlier work — a conservator talked about the odd brushstrokes in a letter as early as 1954, X-rays revealed something under the painting in the 1990s, and infrared images gave a rough outline in 2008 — but technology has now allowed the earlier image to be revealed in detail.

    Thanks to multi-spectral imaging technology and x-ray fluorescence, conservator Patricia Favero of The Phillips Collection, where the painting has resided since 1927, with the help of experts pieced together a detailed image of a bearded man wearing a bow-tie and resting his head on his hand.

    “It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special,” Favero told the Associated Press. “The second reaction was, ‘well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question’.”

    From here, the research will branch in two directions. One team is bent on figuring out who the bearded man might be, having ruled out a self-portrait. One theory is that it might be contemporary Paris-based art dealer Ambrose Villard, who hosted Picasso’s very first exhibition in 1901; but without any clues or documentation available, at this point it remains guesswork and conjecture.

    Favero and her team, meanwhile, are working together to piece together a digital image recreating the painting in the original colours used by the artist.

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