X-Ray Scanning Reveals Secrets Of How Picasso Created His World Famous Works Of Art

The scanning technique is completely non-invasive, and allows researchers to peer beneath the surface. © Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Scientific technology is allowing researchers to digitally peel away the surface of Picassos’ works of art, revealing how he adapted other people’s paintings to create his own, and the impact that the Second World War had on his bronze sculptures.  

By imaging the painting La Miséreuse Accroupie (The Crouching Beggar) using the non-invasive X-ray radiography, the researchers were able to reveal that beneath the morose woman is another painting entirely. It turns out that not only did Picasso paint over another artist’s landscape, he even used the hills of this earlier work to form the back of the beggar in his final piece. It also shows how Picasso originally painted the woman holding a piece of bread, before covering up her hand entirely.


“Picasso had no qualms about changing things during the painting process,” said Marc Walton, co-author of the study presented this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “Our international team – consisting of scientists, a curator, and a conservator – has begun to tease apart the complexity of 'La Miséreuse Accroupie,' uncovering subtle changes made by Picasso as he worked toward his final vision.”

The imaging shows how Picasso painted over a landscape, using the hills as the back of the beggar. © Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Pablo Picasso painted La Miséreuse Accroupie in 1902, at the beginning of what was to come to be known as the artists blue period. For over 15 years it has been suspected that beneath the paint there lay a secret, as it had been noticed that the surface texture of the picture didn’t seem to correlate with the underlying brush strokes, while the cracking paint hinted at other colors beneath.

Who painted the original picture, however, still remains something of a mystery. The scene is believed to depict a real place – Parc del Laberint d’Horta – in Barcelona, and was painted by many young Catalan artists at the time, meaning that Picasso could have acquired it from any number of painters.

The handheld device allows researchers to precisely study the metal's composition. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris)/© Succession Picasso 2018

This has not been the only study looking into the artist’s work, however. Another group of researchers presented their work at the AAAS meeting this week, uncovering the details behind Picasso’s bronze sculptures.


Using portable instruments, the team were able to scan 39 bronzes cast between 1905 and 1959 and 11 sheet metal sculptures from the 1960s, and analyze the material composition of the works of art. This enabled them to trace five of the bronzes back to a single foundry in Paris where they were made during World War II, revealing how the alloy compositions of the sculptures varied widely between 1941 and 1942, likely reflecting the difficulties experienced during the Nazi occupation of the city.

Both studies are highlighting how modern scientific techniques can be used to gain a better understanding of art, giving an unprecedented insight into the creative processes of the great artists of the 20th century.


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