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Infrared imagery reveals hidden depths to early Picasso masterpiece

Using infrared imagery, art experts have found another portrait underneath early masterpiece

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 9:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 9:56pm
 

For Pablo Picasso, 1901 was a pivotal time to experiment and find his own unique style. At just 19 years old, he was living in Paris, painting furiously and dirt poor, so it wasn't unusual for him to take one canvas and reuse it to paint a fresh idea.

Now scientists and art experts are revealing they have found a hidden painting beneath the surface of one of Picasso's first masterpieces, The Blue Room.

Using advances in infrared imagery, they have uncovered a hidden portrait of a bow-tied man with his face resting on his hand.

Now the question that conservators at The Phillips Collection in Washington hope to answer is simply: Who is he?

It's a mystery that's fuelling new research about the painting created early in Picasso's career while he was working in Paris at the start of his distinctive blue period of melancholy subjects.

Curators and conservators revealed the discovery of the portrait for the first time last week.

Experts long suspected there might be something under the surface of The Blue Room, which has been part of The Phillips Collection since 1927. Brushstrokes on the piece clearly don't match the composition that depicts a woman bathing in Picasso's studio.

A conservator noted the odd brushstrokes in a 1954 letter, but it wasn't until the 1990s that an X-ray of the painting first revealed a fuzzy image of something under the picture. It wasn't clear, though, that it was a portrait.

In 2008, improved infrared imagery revealed for the first time a man's bearded face resting on his hand with three rings on his fingers. He's dressed in a jacket and bow tie, painted in a vertical composition.

"It's really one of those moments that really makes what you do special," said Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection who pieced together the best infrared image yet of the man's face.

"The second reaction was, 'Well, who is it?' We're still working on answering that question."

Scholars have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait. One possible figure is the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hosted Picasso's first show in 1901. But there's no documentation and no clues left on the canvas, so the research continues.

Over the past five years, experts from The Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, Cornell University and Delaware's Winterthur Museum have developed a clearer image of the mystery picture.

Curators are planning the first exhibit focused on The Blue Room as a seminal work in Picasso's career for 2017. It will examine the revelation of the hidden portrait, as well as other Picasso works and his engagement with other artists.

The Blue Room is part of a tour to South Korea until early next year as the research continues.

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