In the 1990s, the museum conducted an X-ray that produced an unclear image of the scene beneath “The Blue Room.” In 2008, it began a targeted effort with the National Gallery of Art, Cornell University, and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware to uncover that image. The team used infrared and multispectral imaging, analysis of paint samples, and synchrotron scans to bring the buried picture to light, Elizabeth Lubbens, media relations coordinator for the Phillips told Hyperallergic.
What they found is a portrait of a man Picasso probably painted just before he did “The Blue Room.” Sporting a mustache and a beard, as well as a bow tie, the man hunches forward, his head resting against his right hand. He appears to wear rings on some of the fingers of that hand.
Although the image of the figure was resolved in 2008, “it was only a couple of months ago that the research team from the Phillips, Cornell, NGA, and Winterthur were able to all get together to consolidate the results of all the analyses carried out to date,” Lubben said. “Even though there is still more research to be done, we decided it was a good time to release the information that we have so far rather than sit on it for too much longer.”
More research includes attempting to the identify the mystery man. “While we will continue to explore who this man in the portrait might be, we do not have any firm ideas at this time,” Lubben told Hyperallergic.
Painting over previous works was not uncommon practice for the artists we now consider modern masters, as many of them were too poor to buy canvases every time they found something they wanted to paint. That was the case for Picasso around the turn of the 20th century, before he began making substantial money from his art. “He could not afford to acquire new canvasses every time he had an idea that he wanted to pursue,” Phillips Collection curator Susan Behrends is quoted as saying in the BBC article. “He worked sometimes on cardboard because canvas was so much more expensive.”
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