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Picasso: The Artist's Studio
Picasso: The Artist's Studio

Understanding Picasso Through Conservation (UPTC)

Pablo Picasso<BR><I>The Old Guitarist,</I> 1903
<BR>Oil on panel
<BR>The Art Institute of Chicago
<BR>©2001 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso
The Old Guitarist, 1903
Oil on panel
The Art Institute of Chicago
©2001 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Old Guitarist Meets New Technology
Bonnie Rimer, Art Institute of Chicago, Mellow Fellow in Painting Conservation

Recent advances in technology combined with established examination techniques along with the collaboration of curators and conservators have produced new insights into the Art Institute of Chicago's masterpiece, The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. Painted in Barcelona in late 1903 - early 1904, The Old Guitarist is one of the most important paintings of the artist's "Blue Period" (1901-1904).

Several years ago, inconsistencies noted in the brushwork prompted the conservation department at the Art Institute to x-ray the painting. X-radiographs revealed two faces peering out from behind the guitarist: (1) an older woman with her head bent forward, and (2) a young mother with a nursing child kneeling at her side. It appeared that one or both figures may be sitting with their left arm outstretched. In addition, the head of an animal was visible on the right. It was also obvious that there were two distinctly different paintings beneath The Old Guitarist. However, crucial areas of the x-ray image were unclear, making it hard to interpret and separate the underlying compositions.

With the acquisition of a modern infrared camera system in 1998, it became possible to clarify one of the underlying compositions. The new infrared camera -- purchased from Inframetrics, Inc. (now FLIR Systems) --contained a platinum silicide detector sensitive in the near infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared examinations of paintings by conservators utilizing infrared photography and a specially adapted vidicon camera had been standard practice in the past. Though valuable examination tools, these systems lacked the advanced optics and penetration of the Inframetrics camera. (An infrared photograph of The Old Guitarist taken in 1964 had barely penetrated the upper paint layers, revealing no new information.) Bonnie Rimer, Mellon Fellow in Painting Conservation at the AIC was encouraged by conservator Ann Hoenigswald of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to use the new camera system to re-examine The Old Guitarist. They were hoping for results comparable to those achieved by conservators at the National Gallery, where a recent re-examination of Picasso's painting The Tragedy, using a similar infrared camera, had produced exciting, new information.

Examination of The Old Guitarist with the Inframetrics camera allowed penetration of the uppermost layers of paint (the Guitarist composition) without extending past the second composition. Consequently, several previously obscure elements of the second composition became more visible. It is now obvious that the second figure was a young mother seated in the center of the composition with her left arm outstretched. A small, nursing child was kneeling at her right side. The head of a calf or sheep could be seen to the left of the mother's outstretched arm. Now clearly defined, the young woman has a thoughtful expression and long black hair.

Researchers at the Art Institute immediately began scouring photographs of Picasso's early drawings and paintings in an attempt to identify related works that might provide additional clues to the origin and meaning of the underlying paintings. Although a few related works were identified, unfortunately, none were preparatory studies for the second composition hidden beneath The Old Guitarist.

Art Institute conservators shared their infrared images and research with colleagues at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. William Robinson, Associate Curator of Paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, identified a sketch in a letter from Picasso to his friend Max Jacob that depicted the same subject as the second composition under The Old Guitarist. That sketch features a mother and child in exactly the same pose (including the mother's right arm extended behind the child) as the one seen in the infrared and x-ray images taken at the AIC. Also present are a calf and the head of a cow, the cow apparently licking the calf's head. Careful re-examination of the x-rays and infrared images of The Old Guitarist confirmed the presence of the cow's head in the top right corner and the tongue, originally thought to be the horn or ear of the calf. Picasso mentions in his letter to Jacob that he was in the process of completing this painting. This letter, signed "Barcelona 1 mayo 1903," slightly predates The Old Guitarist (Barcelona, late 1903 - early 1904). The problem of identifying the second composition beneath The Old Guitarist was finally solved. It is the very painting Picasso described in his letter to Jacob. No one knows why Picasso abandoned his earlier composition, but his letter to Jacob indicates that Picasso considered the painting important enough to share it with his friend.

Not only have technical examinations by the AIC conservation department -- combined with art historical research and close collaborations with colleagues at other institutions, provided new insight into the creation of The Old Guitarist -- more importantly, they have aided in the rediscovery a lost Picasso painting. AIC conservators are continuing their examination and analysis of The Old Guitarist in an effort to resolve crucial issues. Among the most important are the need to further clarify the image of the older woman in the first underlying painting and the desire to determine whether the same blue palette Picasso used for The Old Guitarist can be found in the earlier compositions.

Infrared Reflectogram of <I>The Old Guitarist</I>
Infrared Reflectogram of The Old Guitarist
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago
<I>X-ray of the Old Guitarist</I>
X-ray of The Old Guitarist
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago

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