Research on Picasso Work Sheds Light on Earlier Painting

Senior Conservator Julie Barten examines Picasso's Woman Ironing.

For nearly a year, the Guggenheim’s Conservation and Curatorial Departments have been engaged in an intensive investigation into a portrait of a man beneath the surface of Pablo Picasso’s Woman Ironing (La repasseuse, 1904).

Completed during Picasso’s pivotal Blue period (1901–04), the finished painting, currently on view in the exhibition Picasso Black and White, is a celebrated demonstration of the sensitivity, skill, and emotion with which Pablo Picasso depicted the working poor. During a conservation study completed at the Guggenheim in 1989, examination with an infrared camera revealed the presence of an earlier male portrait beneath Woman Ironing. At the time, the museum lacked the resources to do an in-depth study of the finding.

With the help of a recent Bank of America grant, the museum has now more fully studied and documented this earlier work. The Conservation Department employed state-of-the-art infrared imaging technology used in earth and planetary remote sensing to obtain a clearer image of the underlying painting. While infrared imaging facilitated an enhanced visualization of the brushwork and contours of the male portrait, X-rays, pigment analysis, and close scrutiny of the painting with a surgical microscope have further enhanced conservators’ understanding of the palette. Concurrent with the research, Julie Barten, Senior Conservator, has completed a meticulous surface cleaning and stabilization of Woman Ironing, removing unevenly deposited glue residues that existed over much of the surface.

In devising a treatment strategy for the work, lengthy discussions between the Guggenheim’s Conservation and Curatorial Departments took place, primarily between Barten, Carol Stringari, Gillian McMillan, and Megan Fontanella. The Guggenheim has also been working closely with independent conservation scientist John Twilley throughout the project, and with John Delaney of the National Gallery of Art, who did the infrared imaging.

In conjunction with this research, an interactive web feature shows the final painting superimposed on images of the earlier portrait obtained with X-ray and infrared imaging, along with detailed text on the conservation treatment and imaging techniques. The web interactive will continue to evolve in coming months as more information is gathered through ongoing research.

Recently, a number of Picasso scholars and conservators have been invited to see the cleaned picture and the images obtained of the underlying portrait. Through these discussions, theories are beginning to emerge about the identity of the man and a more precise dating of the portrait. The Guggenheim plans to publish research findings and contribute to a variety of public forums to enhance existing scholarship and further the dialogue on Picasso’s working methods.

Senior Conservator Julie Barten examines Picasso's Woman Ironing. Photo: Kristopher McKay

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