Popular Science

Uncovering Picasso’s concealed paint strokes



Pablo Picasso’s noted portrait of literary icon Gertrude Stein has long mystified art historians. Between the fall of 1905 and the spring of 1906, the author sat for the artist more than 80 times—an atypically lengthy process for the accomplish­ed painter. Contempora­ry reports suggest Picasso kept restarting his work.

For years chemists and conservato­rs have been trying to unravel the artist’s tedious creative process. In earlier studies, researcher­s placed the artwork in an X-ray machine, which identifies the presence of heavy elements common in pigments, such as mercury and lead. If Picasso painted over something, it would reveal what’s underneath. But X-rays can only detect dense metals, so the studies unveiled just a handful of edits.

In 2019, MET conservato­r Isabelle Duvernois and I used a newer technology called macro X-ray fluorescen­ce, which finds elements too light for other imaging modes to pick up, such as calcium and phosphorus. It exposes the work to specific radiation that excites the atoms in pigments. The resulting energy creates a map of every light and heavy metal.

We discovered extensive reworking on the image’s left side. Picasso seems to have painted over the background and Stein’s coat repeatedly with hasty and broad streaks. We also identified signs that he revisited her face, eventually completely shifting the angle of her gaze.

It’s like a detective story: We can spy into the past and gain a better understand­ing of both the artist and the sitter. Many suspect it wasn’t just Picasso’s perfection­ism that led to the many do-overs. Stein’s powerful personalit­y may have driven the many changes too.

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