Poverty Forced Picasso To Paint Over His Own Work
June 22, 2014

Poverty Forced Picasso To Paint Over His Own Work

Pablo Picasso once said “I would like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” It may sound like something that spoiled rich kids would say when they go off to see some poverty theme park at home or abroad, but Picasso may have had more real sympathy with the poor. Much of his work certainly suggests so, and indeed he was very poor himself for a time.

The Huffington Post has reported a joint effort between art experts and scientists at the The Phillips Collection in Washington, along with National Gallery of Art, Cornell University and Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, who are excited to have discovered a hidden painting beneath one of Picasso’s first masterpieces, The Blue Room. Cutting edge infrared imagery has revealed the portrait of a forlorn, unknown man with his chin resting on his hand.

The work is typical of the artist’s Blue Period, early in his career, before worldwide fame, which depicts melancholy subjects, very often disturbingly gaunt people. Blindness, prostitutes and beggars are also common themes. Although not thought to be a self-portrait, the fact that a newly discovered painting of the sorrowful man sits beneath another Picasso work is a reflection of Picasso’s own relative poverty around that time. He could not afford to buy new canvas regularly and often used cardboard instead. On some occasions, as appears to be the case with The Blue Room, he would simply paint over existing projects.

Adding to the explanation, experts say that when he had an idea, Picasso had to get it down as quickly as possible. He was unprepared to wait until he could afford new canvas, which, given that at this stage Picasso could not afford to heat his home, could be a long time. In fact, he was forced to burn some of his work in order to make a fire for warmth. Much was lost forever as a result of lack of money, but happily we are now at least able to know of the existence of this piece beneath The Blue Room.

“It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special,” said Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection who led the building of the best infrared image so far of the man’s face. “The second reaction was, ‘well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question.” One suggestion for who the man might be is the Paris art dealer Ambrose Villard, who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901. But evidence is thin on that ground and more research is required.

The presence of something interesting beneath the masterpiece was first suggested by an art expert in a letter in 1954, noting unusual brush strokes. But it was not until the 1990s that technology began to build a picture of what was going on, and a long, slow process led to the revelations we have today. Now, the Huffington Post tells us, “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.”

This discovery, along with hidden works beneath other paintings of the Spanish artist, help to build a clearer understanding of his life, as well as being a fascinatingly mysterious discovery in its own right, and proof that there is more to the never-ending intrigue of art than what Dan Brown gives us. For me, the fascination comes from the time of history, too, and that part of the world — both of which make up my answer when people ask the question “what place and time would you go back to if you could.”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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