It’s possible that, for more than 100 years, no one other than Pablo Picasso was aware of the small piece of bread being clutched by his subject in “La Miséreuse accroupie.” Before the oil painting was finished in 1902, the artist painted a cloak over the once-visible right hand.
The discovery emerged earlier this year following an international partnership between the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The research team, which involved NU-ACCESS co-directors Marc Walton and Francesca Casadio, as well as postdoctoral fellows Emeline Pouyet and Gianluca Pastorelli, used multiple modes of light to uncover details hidden beneath the visible surface of the painting, a major work from Picasso’s Blue Period.
“We could see that Picasso made a compositional change, having initially painted the woman with her right arm visible, her hand holding a piece of bread,” says Pouyet. In the finished version of the 1902 oil painting, owned by the AGO in Toronto, the arm and bread have been painted over.
“When we first met with the conservators and curators of the Art Gallery of Ontario, we realized that our instruments could help answer some of their question about Picasso’s creation process,” says Pouyet. “Using non-invasive techniques, we are able to scan precious and fragile works of art in totality before honing in on specific areas of interest, as was done in this case.”
This project with the AGO was made possible through NU-ACCESS, which is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The center’s mission is to provide scientific support for the investigation of art collections, to develop new technology to look at art and to research new methods to conserve art for future generations.
Other major NU-ACCESS projects have included studies of the works of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Most recently, the center spearheaded a study by scientists and Northwestern students of a series of mummy portraits produced in Egypt during the Roman period and a complete intact 1,900-year-old young girl portrait mummy.
Pouyet will discuss her latest research, as well as the role of scientific support for the investigation of art collections. Science Café is open to the public and takes place May 23 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Firehouse Grill, 750 Chicago Ave. in Evanston.