Beneath Picasso’s The Blue Room

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Left: Paint sample from Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901) showing how yellow, blue, and green paints were mixed while still wet to create a variegated effect. Right: X-ray map showing zinc, chromium, and lead-containing pigments. © 2014 Jennifer Mass, Winterthur Museum

There has been a lot of buzz this summer around the Phillips’s The Blue Room by Pablo Picasso, a 1901 painting created at a time when the young artist was trying on different artistic personalities. In June, an AP exclusive story revealed the image of an underpainting—hidden beneath the surface of the masterwork—uncovered by a team of scientists and conservators from the Phillips, Cornell University, National Gallery of Art, and Winterthur Museum. However, this discovery did not happen overnight. It is the result of many years of collaborative research between the four institutions to reveal details of the contemplative man painted in the hidden image and better understand Picasso’s materials and methods.

On Wednesday, the technical details of this scientific analysis were presented by Winterthur Museum’s Dr. Jennifer Mass at the Synchrotron Radiation and Neutrons in Art and Archaeology Meeting (SR2A 2014) in Paris. Her presentation addressed the palette and painting methods Picasso used for the two works and the relationship between those palettes. She also explored the wealth of information acquired through the combination of the cross-section studies, molecular analyses, hyperspectral reflectance imaging, and XRF imaging.

The Blue Room is currently being exhibited in an international exhibition at the Daejeon Museum of Art in central Korea, but the collaborating institutions will continue their research efforts as the museum prepares for a 2017 exhibition that centers on Picasso and this seminal painting.

What Lies Beneath

(Left) Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901, Oil on canvas 19 7/8 x 24 1/4 in.; 50.4825 x 61.595 cm. Acquired 1927. (Right) Infrared of Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901). The Phillips Collection, copyright 2008.

(Left) Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901, Oil on canvas 19 7/8 x 24 1/4 in.; 50.4825 x 61.595 cm. Acquired 1927. (Right) Infrared of Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901). The Phillips Collection,  copyright 2008.

Perhaps you’ve heard our big news of the day: thanks to the skillful work and research of Patricia Favero and colleagues at fellow institutions, a portrait of a man has been identified under Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901) through the use of imaging technology. We’re really proud of Patti’s discovery!

This is not the first time one of our excellent conservators has made a newsworthy discovery. Just one example is chief conservator Elizabeth Steele’s and then-intern Gillian Cook’s finding of an entirely complete canvas beneath Gifford Beal’s painting, Parade of Elephants (1924) back in 1999. The uncovered work, On the Hudson at Newburg (1918), has gone on to become a most beloved part of our collection.

Two paintings by Gifford Beal that, at one time, shared a stretcher. (Left) On the Hudson at Newburgh, 1918, Oil on canvas 36 x 58 1/2 in.; 91.44 x 148.59 cm.. Estate of Gifford Beal, courtesy of Kraushaar Galleries. (Right) Parade of Elephants, 1924, Oil on canvas 36 1/8 x 58 5/8 in.; 91.7575 x 148.9075 cm.. Acquired 1924.

Two paintings by Gifford Beal that, at one time, shared a stretcher. (Left) On the Hudson at Newburgh, 1918, Oil on canvas 36 x 58 1/2 in.; 91.44 x 148.59 cm.. Estate of Gifford Beal, courtesy of Kraushaar Galleries. (Right) Parade of Elephants, 1924, Oil on canvas 36 1/8 x 58 5/8 in.; 91.7575 x 148.9075 cm.. Acquired 1924.

Conservation Gets Ready for Made in the USA

Conservators at The Phillips Collection have been getting ready for Made In The USA, the exhibition celebrating the return of the collection’s American masterworks after almost five years on tour. A few works that did not go on tour but will be featured at the Phillips this spring and summer have recently received attention to treat structural issues such as canvas distortions and insecure paint. In addition, all of the works required cleaning to remove dulling layers of surface grime.

Setting down raised cracks and consolidating insecure paint on "No. 9" by Bradley Walker Tomlin. Top: The painting is raised on blocks and a suction apparatus is placed behind the canvas to aid in consolidation and drying. Bottom: Adhesive is wicked into the paint cracks using a small brush. Suction from the reverse helps pull the adhesive into the cracks as well as to pull lifting paint into plane as the adhesive dries.

Setting down raised cracks and consolidating insecure paint on “No. 9″ (1952) by Bradley Walker Tomlin.
Top: The painting is raised on blocks and a suction apparatus is placed behind the canvas to aid in consolidation and drying.
Bottom: Adhesive is wicked into the paint cracks using a small brush. Suction from the reverse helps pull the adhesive into the cracks as well as to pull lifting paint into plane as the adhesive dries.

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Structural treatment to reduce canvas distortions in “Fall of Old Houses” (undated) by Ernest Fiene.
Top left: The painting is carefully removed from the stretcher and the folded over edges are flattened using controlled moisture and gentle heat from a heated spatula.
Top Right: Strips of linen canvas are prepared.
Bottom: With the painting off its stretcher and laying face-down on the table, strips of linen canvas are attached to reinforce the tacking edges. The painting will be placed in a work stretcher so that all of the canvas is accessible, and the distortions will be relaxed and reduced using controlled humidification and suction.

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Using a soft sponge to remove grime from the surface of “Gray Buildings” (1925) by Niles Spencer.

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Watercolors are used to retouch minor losses on the frame for “Grey Buildings” by Niles Spencer.

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Removing dark grey grime from the unvarnished surface of “Catalpa in Bloom” (undated) by Anne Goldthwaite.

After cleaning, applying wax to the surface of "Ancestor" (1958), by Seymour Lipton.

After cleaning, applying wax to the surface of “Ancestor” (1958), by Seymour Lipton.

Other works treated for the touring exhibition in the past five years include:

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square (1957)

Milton Avery, Black Sea (1959)

Alexander Calder,  Red Polygons (ca. 1950)

Stuart Davis, Eggbeater No. 4 (1928)William Gropper, Minorities (1938 or 1939)

Marsden Hartley, Off the Banks at Night (1942)

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (between 1845 and 1846)

Stefan Hirsch, Mill Town (ca. 1925)

Karl Knaths, Deer in Sunset  (1946)

Walt Kuhn, Plumes (1931)

Seymour Lipton, Ancestor (1958)

Loren MacIver, New York (1952)

Peppino Mangravite, Political Exiles (ca. 1928)

Grandma Moses, Hoosick Falls in Winter (1944)

Alfonso Ossorio, Mother and Child (1951)

Theodoros Stamos, Sacrifice of Kronos (1948)

Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8 (1952)

Jack Tworkov, Highland (1959)