When diagnostics calls the certainties of art into question. Picasso’s works of the Blue Period

May 9, 2022 | Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Publications, Studies and Projects

The results of scientific investigations on 3 important Picasso paintings are on display in Washington: a real wealth of information that confirms how analyzes can change the course of art history

Until 12 June 2022, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC hosts the exhibition Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, which brings together over ninety works including paintings, drawings, sculptures and interventions on paper, created by Picasso at the beginning of his career, in his Blue Period.

The American exhibition offers the public interesting points of view on Picasso’s creative process, revealing some details “hidden” under the surface. The exhibition in fact brings to light studies and investigations begun in 2014 and then continued to date on three different works by the Spanish painter dated between 1901 and 1903, all three made by Picasso on recycled canvases, an operation that the artist performs many times.

These are the “Blue Room” painted in 1901, of “The crouching mendicant” dated 1902 and “The soup“, 1903.

The research was conducted by the Sherman Fairchild Conservation Studio, which is part of the Phillips Collection itself, and which used sophisticated techniques, such as infrared imaging and X-fluorescence mapping, allowing details hidden under the paint layer to be visualized, and revealing the tumultuous and rapid creative process adopted by the Spanish painter.

The Blue Room” has been scanned four times (the last in 2019) with increasingly refined and sensitive tools, to be able to “browse” the history of the work. And so what was suspected more than 60 years ago has emerged with great clarity. In fact, already with the naked eye you can see that part of the paint reflects the brushstrokes in different directions with respect to the visible composition, hence the suspicion that there was something underneath.

Combining diagnostic data, scientists highlighted what actually was there: the portrait of an unknown man, with a red flower on his shirt, perhaps useful to identify him.

This is the first of three large Blue Period canvases that visitors to the exhibition encounter. The work was entitled “La toilette” when Duncan Phillips bought it in 1927 as his first acquisition of the Spanish painter. On the left is a naked woman washing herself on a large basin in a small room with some simple furniture, an unmade bed in the background, a colored carpet and finally a table with flowers.

The pose of the woman cannot fail to evoke the figures of Degas. But on the back wall of the small room Picasso also inserted two paintings, namely a seascape and the poster “May Milton” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from 1895. So Degas and Lautrec, his idols.

The room pictured was the one-room apartment that Pablo lived in at 130, Boulevard de Clichy, on the top floor. This painting therefore gives us a precise idea of ​​the interior, showing us that the study was also used as a living room, bedroom and bathroom.

Thanks therefore to the new analyzes carried on the work, and on the painting below, scholars now think that the portrait of the man below was executed in mid-summer 1901, while the final version, “The blue room“, dates back to mid-November 1901 (also because between the two different layers of paint there are no deposits of dust, so they were done not too far in time). Until now, however, the final work was dated to the summer of 1901. It might seem like a small change (summer vs November, a few months after all) were it not that that year, 1901, was crucial in Picasso’s production, and even a few months of difference can make us better understand the evolution of his art. In fact, the Spanish painter had declared to his biographer Pierre Daix that his Blue Period had begun following the terrible suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. At this point it is necessary to retrace the stages of this story to better understand the artistic one.

They had met with Carlos at nineteen in Barcelona but the city, however lively, was not enough for the dreams of the two boys. Thus, in September 1900, the two arrived in Paris and opened their studios in an apartment in Montmartre, beginning to frequent and enjoy the Parisian nightlife, thanks to the money generously made available by Carlos, poet, painter, and son of diplomatic.

Two meet Louise Lenoir (called Odette) and the beautiful Laure Gargallo (called Germaine). Picasso starts dating Odette, while Carlos, was very much in love with Germaine. He wants to get serious, maybe even get married, but for the girl the story is just an adventure, and she, not reciprocating the young man, has other lovers. The story ends, and Carlos falls into the most fearful depression. Just to change the air, Pablo offers his friend a vacation in his hometown, Malaga, where the two arrive on December 30, 1900.

But while Picasso stays in Spain, also going to Madrid, Carlos returns to Paris almost immediately, consumed by jealousy, and there the drama takes place.
On February 17, 1901, Casagemas invited some friends, including Germaine, to the Hyppodrome restaurant on boulevard de Clichy. During dinner, the Catalan gets up and, after a raving speech, takes out a gun and points it at Germaine, who protects herself behind a guest. He shoots, he doesn’t hit her. Then Carlos points the gun at his temple and kills himself instantly. It is only on his return to France that Picasso learns the terrible news. And he is extremely struck by it, most likely also due to a strong sense of guilt towards his friend, having also frequented Germaine.
Since Picasso had stated that that tragedy had made him “start painting in blue“, he had always dated the beginning of the Blue Period to the summer of 1901, and the Blue Room was believed to be one of the earliest works. After the analyzes, however, it is evident that Picasso, having returned to Paris, continued to paint with his previous style, with many colors also bright (as revealed in the portrait of a man below), and it was only at the end of the year that the anguish for the death of his friend took over, so much so that he also changed the palette as well as the subjects, turning everything to the cold tones of blue. 
Another small consequence of this different dating is the different understanding of Picasso’s homage to Toulous Lautrec. In fact, the French painter died on 9 September 1901 at the age of 36 and therefore, the insertion of the poster May Milton on the wall is obviously a post-mortem homage that Picasso wanted to pay him.

Returning to the exhibition, in addition to the Blue Room, there are also two other works from the Blue Period from the Art Gallery of Ontario, the “Crouching Beggar” dated 1902 and “The soup”, 1903. In-depth investigations and studies have also been carried out on these, thus providing more new information on Picasso’s creative process.

From the technical analyzes it emerged that, in the first version the beggar was holding something in her hand, perhaps some bread (or a bowl), but evidently then Picasso changed his mind and wrapped both hands in the woman’s cloak, giving a much more sense of solitude. But the surprises aren’t over: scans of the work showed an underlying landscape that was recognized by Josep Laplana, director of the Montserrat Museum, as a view of a park that was private at the time and now belongs to the city of Barcelona. ​​

This creates a problem, as there is no trace that Picasso visited the park, which appears closed at the beginning of the 20th century. It is therefore thought that the landscape is by an unknown artist and that Picasso cleverly incorporated it into the figure of the crouching woman.

Finally, in “The Soup” (1903) the analyzes showed that Picasso had initially depicted a male figure giving bread to a boy (or a girl), but who then transformed the scene into a woman giving a bowl of soup to a girl. 

So the results of these investigations turn out to be a real wealth of information that confirms how in-depth scientific analyzes on works of art can continuously and unexpectedly provide clues and data that are also capable of changing the course of art history.

Filippo Melli