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A Life Before La Vie

A recent cleaning of Picasso's masterpiece provided a unique opportunity for further research
Marcia Steele, Senior Conservator of Paintings
January 3, 2014
La Vie

In 1945 the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired Picasso’s Blue Period masterpiece La Vie. Initial radiographs produced by X-rays in 1978 revealed an earlier work hidden beneath the surface painting. At the time, art historian Marilyn McCully deciphered the painting below as Last Moments, an early large work by Picasso long thought to be lost. When the radiograph is turned 90 degrees counterclockwise, certain elements of the earlier painting become clear and can be compared to Picasso’s preparatory drawings for Last Moments. Prior knowledge of the hidden painting came only through written descriptions from that time and a series of related drawings. The subject of these drawings and the painting underneath is a woman on her deathbed with a figure, presumably a priest, standing near the foot of the bed. The source of illumination in the darkened room is a lamp set on the bedside table. The drawer of the table is open and several objects, including a glass, sit on top. In some of the drawings, the specter of death hovers over the woman’s head. On the far wall, alternatively a cross or a painting is seen in the drawings.

The radiograph of La Vie shows some of the elements of Last Moments, which are more legible due to the more dense pigments used in the colors of the earlier painting. For example, the bright yellow-orange of the lampshade on the bedside table contains a relatively dense pigment that absorbs X-rays and thus appears white in the radiograph. A cross-sectional view of this area identifies red lead as the pigment. Other areas that relate to Last Moments in the radiograph confirm the presence of the table with opened drawer and the white cuff and collar of the standing priest. Some of the changes made to La Vie are also more visible. These include the head of the standing artist figure at left—originally a self-portrait of Picasso before he changed it to depict fellow artist Carles Casagemas—and the top of the easel holding the painting between the figures. The positions of the heads of the two other standing figures also show signs of alteration.


Beneath the Surface
Beneath the Surface Compositional elements in Picasso’s sketches for Last Moments appear in the transmitted infrared image of La Vie turned 90 degrees counterclockwise (with conservator’s notes).

 In the 1990s, traditional infrared reflectography was used to compare areas of the painting with the X-radiograph, revealing parts of La Vie that were changed or painted out—most notably, the elements below the crouched figure at the bottom that partially obscure the flying birdman and reclining woman underneath. Picasso’s self-portrait under the depiction of Casagemas also is clearer with this imaging technique. Changes in these areas were always visible even in raking light.

The summer 2013 loan of the painting to an exhibition in Barcelona offered a unique opportunity to learn more. Conservators cleaned the painting and captured a transmitted infrared image to gain more insight into the painting’s underlying layers and possibly see more of the composition of Last Moments. This type of image is obtained by placing an artwork between a light source and an infrared camera/imager. With this method, the light transmits through the artwork and the infrared-sensitive camera captures an image of the materials that differentially absorb and transmit the energy close to the infrared part of the light spectrum. In this case, the light source needed to penetrate the surface painting of La Vie, the underlying painting of Last Moments, the original canvas support, and the lining fabric adhered to the back. Very little was visible during the capture process, but when the image was opened and manipulated in Photoshop, more information about Last Moments became apparent. For the first time, certain elements found in the sketches for Last Moments could be deciphered: the figure lying on the bed and her outstretched arm and hand, her head resting on the pillow and the bedsheets falling over the side of the bed, the folds of the garment of the standing figure at left, a cross and rectangular shape on the background wall, as well as a trace of the figure of death above the dying woman, and perhaps the back of a chair on the far side of the bed. An arched shape appears at the upper left, along with several previously known compositional elements, namely the bedside table with open drawer and lamp, glass, and box sitting atop. (A small portion of the painting that Picasso scratched out constituted the brightest area, as the greatest amount of light was transmitted through the scratches. It is in the stomach of the standing woman below.) 

Transmitted infrared imaging of La Vie has produced more detailed information about the underlying painting, adding to the technical study of this enigmatic work. Technical and art historical studies offer insights into the early working methods of Picasso, who used preparatory drawings and frequently changed his composition—in some cases leaving the underlying work tantalizingly visible to the viewer.  

La Vie during Cleaning
La Vie during Cleaning Note the area on the left side of the image where the discolored varnish has been removed.  

Special thanks to Dean Yoder, conservator of paintings, and Joan Neubecker, conservation technician for photos and photography, for their assistance in obtaining and manipulating the infrared transmitted image.


Cleveland Art, January/February 2014