How Art Experts Discovered A Hidden Portrait Beneath A Picasso Masterpiece

Today, the Associated Press shared an exclusive story that gives new meaning to the phrase inner beauty. Underneath Pablo Picasso's celebrated 1901 painting "The Blue Room"—a piece which many describe as one of his first masterpieces—researchers have found a second, hidden painting of a man in a bow tie, wearing three rings and with his hand rested on his chin.

Over the past five years, experts at The Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, Cornell University, and Delaware's Winterthur Museum collaborated to determine that this unearthed work was likely painted immediately before "The Blue Room." 

"When he had an idea, you know, he just had to get it down and realize it," said curator Susan Behrends Frank. Rather than start again on a new canvas—which he often couldn't afford and would sometimes replace with cheaper material like cardboard—the 20th-century master would paint over half-completed projects in a frenzy.

Art aficionados and curators have been suspicious of drafted work under "The Blue Room" as early as 1954, when one conservator highlighted in a letter that that there were some odd brushstrokes that didn't correspond with the image of a woman bathing.

It was in the 1990s, however, it became readily apparent something was underneath the finished piece when an X-ray depicted a blurry image underneath the picture, though the form and subject weren't clearly defined. Then in 2008, researchers were able to make out a man's face. In the past five years, they have refined their analysis techniques, leading up to today's unveiling of the now-crisp image: 

GIF by Dan Stuckey

Image via

Image via

But what kind of detective work was used to reach this massive discovery? After all, the researchers were dealing with an iconic painting from Picasso's blue period worth millions of dollars. Scratching off a part of the top layer with a dirty fingernail clearly wasn't an option. 

Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection, lead the team that composed the strongest image of the hidden painting to date. Since 2008, she and other experts in the field have been using infrared imaging processes to see beneath "The Blue Room." Though the specific cameras weren't mentioned, the researchers most likely used short wave infrared linear arrays (SWIR) and near-infrared cameras (NIR) to discover the curious portrait. 

The human eye can only see between .35 and .7 microns, but infrared cameras allow us to see above .7 microns in wavelength. Infrared is a longer wavelength than visible light, so materials like paint that appear opaque or colored become see-through when hit with IR rays and light.

If a painting is filmed with an infrared camera in incredible detail, then researchers can look under the surface layer of paint without harming the artwork. These tools are also used by conservators and fraud specialists when it comes to authenticating and documenting work. Other famous paintings, like Picasso's "Guernica," have been subject to similar camera analysis.

Favero and her colleagues have also been exploring multi-spectral imaging technology and X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping (also known as fluorescence spectroscopy) to detail the approximate pigments of the drafted portrait. They hope to create a digital image of the bearded man in full color in the near future.

Dorothy Kosinski, the director of The Phillips Collection, said, "Our audiences are hungry for this. It's kind of detective work. It's giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle." 

"The Blue Room" is currently on a tour through South Korea that will continue until early 2015, but the curators are also planning a new exhibition that focuses on "The Blue Room" as one of Picasso's masterworks, set to debut in 2017.

For more information, see the exclusive over at the Associate Press. Images via AP/Evan Vucci.


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