In the early 1900s, when Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was first attempting to stake his claim as the world’s best artist, money was tight. As such, it wasn’t uncommon for the Spanish artist to paint over a previously completed canvas. Art historians know he did this, for example, with his Blue Period work La Soupe (1902). What is uncommon is for researchers, nearly five decades after his death, to now find more instances of this in his work.
But that’s precisely what a team of researchers at the Art Institute of Chicago discovered and discussed in a newly published report in Applied Science. What the researchers found was that on the canvas used for his 1922 masterpiece Still Life, Picasso first attempted painting a different, more neoclassical still life. They decided to take a closer look at the canvas when they noticed the surface of that painting appeared to be wrinkled with multiple layers. What started as benign curiosity, resulted in a breakthrough discovery. After researchers applied X-radiography and infrared imaging, they were stunned to find an entirely different composition beneath the painting.
What made this find all the more fascinating is that Picasso seemed to have intended for it to never be noticed. While the artist typically wanted his viewers to see the many iterations that went into his work by allowing previous drafts to show through his final work, Picasso purposely blotted out the first draft with a heavy cast of white paint. Almost ensuring its disappearance, until now. “Picasso was a playful and inventive painter who often seemed to have more ideas than materials at hand,” says Allison Langley, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. “He frequently painted over earlier works that were partially or fully finished, often responding to the colors, forms or themes of the earlier composition.”
Pablo Picasso’s 1922 canvas Still Life has been one of the most prized possessions in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection since it was donated in 1953 by Alice Toklas on behalf of her late partner, Gertrude Stein. The work was made a decade after Picasso shocked the world with his Cubist murals, and four years after the artist married his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a time when Picasso drifted toward neoclassical paintings. In the early 1920s, the Spaniard was late in his Cubist period, spending much of his energy experimenting with flat grids underlying thick, colorful lines. As Langley explains, “Chicago’s Still Life is unusual in that he blocked out the early work and turned the canvas on its side before painting the linear still life we see today. In this period, Picasso was working in two styles simultaneously: linear cubism and neoclassical narratives.”
Perhaps Picasso knew all along that he couldn’t hide anything from a curious public. In the 1950s he suggested as much to Kenneth Brummel, a curator of modern art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “[He said to me], you should be doing X-rays of my work, because you’ll find things underneath,” Brummel told the Toronto Star in a 2018 interview. “He didn’t get any more specific, but he urged people to do just that.”