A hidden painting beneath one of Pablo Picasso’s first masterpieces, “The Blue Room” (1901), was revealed by scientists and art experts of The Phillips Collection (Washington DC) through the use of imaging technology. The hidden painting shows a bow-tied man with his face resting on his hand. Now the question that conservators at The Phillips Collection hope to answer is simply: Who is he?
“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 are researching who this man might be and why Picasso painted him. They have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait.
According to the latest post about the hidden paintings identity, at The Phillips Collection blog, one of the most frequent suggestions the public has posted, tweeted or sent by email to the museum is Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939), a foremost European art dealer at the turn of the century, but there’s no documentation and no clues left on the canvass. “Known for his keen eye in recognizing rising stars, he amassed an impressive list of artistic connections, including Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh. Vollard boasted the first one-man exhibition of Picasso’s work, and in fact the artist did create a portrait or two of his dealer during his lifetime. However, this was not a terribly uncommon practice. One Phillips patron wrote in noting that the small lips, body language and type, as well as outfit seem very similar to other portraits of Vollard.
“Another name that has come up several times is Pío Baroja (1872–1956). Baroja was a writer best known for his seminal work The Tree of Knowledge. While his novels never reached the height of popularity, likely due to his penchant for pessimism, he is still considered one of the leading Spanish novelists of the period. Baroja was a member of the Generation of ’98, a group that lead the way in avant-garde change in Spain and which paved the way for artists like Picasso. A Phillips follower tweeted that Picasso drew him for Arte Joven while in Madrid”. (Experiment Station, The Phillips Collection)
The “mystery man” fuels new research about the 1901 painting created early in Picasso’s career while he was working in Paris at the start of his distinctive blue period of melancholy subjects.
“The Blue Room” has been part of The Phillips Collection in Washington since 1927. Conservators long suspected there might be something under the surface of the painting, as 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. A technical analysis confirmed the hidden portrait is a work Picasso likely painted just before “The Blue Room,” curators said. After the portrait was discovered, conservators have been using other technology to scan the painting for further insights.
“When he had an idea, you know, he just had to get it down and realize it,” curator Susan Behrends Frank told the AP, revealing Picasso had hurriedly painted over another complete picture. “He could not afford to acquire new canvasses every time he had an idea that he wanted to pursue. He worked sometimes on cardboard because canvass was so much more expensive.”
Patricia Favero has been collaborating with other experts to scan the painting with multi-spectral imaging technology and x-ray fluorescence intensity mapping to try to identify and map the colors of the hidden painting. They would like to recreate a digital image approximating the colors Picasso used.
“The Blue Room” will be displayed in South Korea from next month until early next year. It will also be the focus of an exhibition at The Phillips Collection planned for 2017.