Pablo Picasso's Woman Ironing
Treatment and Imaging of Picasso’s “Woman Ironing”
Completed during the pivotal Blue period (1901–04), Woman Ironing (La repasseuse, 1904) is a celebrated demonstration of the sensitivity, skill, and emotion with which Pablo Picasso depicted the working poor. The painting’s melancholy surface palette of whites and blue-grays evokes empathy for the hard, labor-intensive daily life of the subject—a life Picasso experienced himself during his first years in Paris, when Woman Ironing was painted. At that time, Picasso was a young, unknown artist living in relative poverty.
But there is more to this painting than the evocative portrait of a Parisian laundress. A study of Woman Ironing completed in 1989 revealed an apparent portrait of a man beneath the surface of the 1904 composition. Technological limitations prevented further discovery about the underlying portrait until recently, when developments in imaging techniques allowed researchers to see it with greater clarity.
The Guggenheim Conservation Department has been conducting an in-depth, scholarly study of the earlier portrait, incorporating advanced imaging techniques as well as chemical analysis of pigments and historical research. The results have obtained a better visualization of the underlying male subject and will enhance existing scholarship on Picasso’s working methods and materials. Conservation treatment of the painting has been a central component of the project, and has comprised overall cleaning, stabilization, and editing of old and mismatched restorations.
Imaging of the Underlying Male Portrait
To the naked eye, paintings expose only their surface. Pigments in the paint surface scatter light in the visible spectrum, which the eye perceives, creating the familiar impression for which a work is known. By using a variety of examination tools to reveal what the naked eye cannot see, however, conservators delve below the immediately visible for a glimpse at the history concealed by layers of paint.
What is seen through these techniques allows conservators to discern compositional changes made by an artist in the course of painting and to recognize when a canvas has been reused. Observing and documenting these steps in the evolution of a painting enables scholars to understand an artist’s working methods and objectives. In the case of Woman Ironing, analysis revealed a detailed painting of a male figure oriented upside down beneath the surface composition.
A commonly used imaging technique called infrared reflectography involves examining a painting with an infrared camera using light in the near infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum—the area just beyond the visible. Pigments are less absorbing and scatter light less at these wavelengths, causing paint to appear more transparent. This can render lower layers of paint visible and reveal hidden details.
Traditional methods of infrared examination produce monochrome images using a wide range of wavelengths of infrared light. While such images often reveal the presence of compositional changes, they can leave some features hard to discern. New research has shown that by collecting images in narrow bands of light across the infrared spectrum one can obtain greater clarity and better visualization of concealed layers. This technique is called near infrared imaging spectroscopy.
The state-of-the-art method used in examining Woman Ironing is borrowed from earth and planetary remote sensing and employs a hyperspectral camera capable of breaking near infrared light into hundreds of narrow spectral bands. Dr. John Delaney, Senior Imaging Scientist at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and a consultant on the Guggenheim’s project, customized the camera for the high sensitivity requirements of conservation work. The improved visualization results not only from acquiring these narrow band images but also from the mathematical manipulation of the data in ways that accentuate features from the earlier painting, while suppressing those of the later one. This, for example, enabled researchers to clarify the position and character of the man’s right sleeve, which could not be determined from the original broadband infrared image.
While the current infrared imaging yields a clearer view of the brushwork and contours of the male portrait beneath Woman Ironing than could be obtained by earlier infrared methods or with X-rays, it is important to note that the resulting composite images do not accurately convey the underlying painting’s palette. Since the infrared region has no correlation with human perceptions of color, the composite images resulting from this process emphasizes the underlying painting but appears deceptively monochromatic. Microscopic examination and analysis thus far have revealed that the true colors of the male portrait below Woman Ironing include rosy flesh tones and a bright-red cravat. X-radiography produces superior imaging in areas of the composition containing lead white paint, and thus the X-ray of Woman Ironing complements the IR image by capturing the lively character of the brushwork in brighter passages like the man’s face and sleeve.
Cleaning and Stabilization of “Woman Ironing”
While the underlying portrait was being analyzed, Julie Barten, Senior Conservator, Collections and Exhibitions, completed a meticulous surface cleaning and stabilization of Woman Ironing. There were unevenly deposited glue residues over much of the surface, remnants from a lining done in Paris to repair slashes along two edges of the painting incurred during an attempted theft while the painting was on exhibit at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1952. Over time the glue had turned yellowish-brown, contracted, and become brittle, causing microscopic paint cleavage in many areas. In addition to compromising the stability of the painting, the residues veiled Picasso’s masterwork with uneven discoloration. Since the glue tended to accumulate in deeper interstices of the paint surface, the highlighted passages, which Picasso painted with thicker lead white paint, held more deposits and thus suffered the greatest discoloration.
To clean the surface of the picture, Barten used deionized water, adjusted to an appropriate pH and applied with fine sable brushes and cotton swabs. In areas with unstable paint, the glue residues had to be delicately teased away from the surface; any loose flakes were properly positioned and readhered by flowing minute amounts of dilute adhesive into the cracks. The use of a surgical stereomicroscope at high magnification facilitated the preservation of even the tiniest paint flakes.
The cleaning exposed extraordinary nuances in Picasso’s brushwork and palette and helped recover the painting’s original luminosity and depth. Subtle chromatic differentiations emerged among the various grays and flesh tones, and the overall palette proved cooler than it had previously appeared.
Visit the Picasso Black and White exhibition website.
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