The Blue Period of Picasso: more than meets the eye

On Friday January 30th we held the seminar “The Blue Period: New Interpretations by Means of Technical Studies” at the Museu Picasso. The seminar provided us with plenty of new information that posed many challenges both for restorers as well as for art historians.

The aim of this conference  was to make known and also to make available the latest technical studies that have been carried out on the emblematic works of the Blue Period, a fundamental period closely linked to the city of Barcelona.  The applications of new technologies have allowed us to “see” the underlying works and to obtain a lot of information about the pictorial process of the artist.


Photo of the director Bernardo Laniado-Romero with the speakers Patricia Favero, Allison P. Langley, Ann Hoenigswald, Julie Barten and Reyes Jiménez de Garnica. Photography: Dani Rovira

It was an intensive day, in which art, science, and technology went hand in hand and in which the traditional barriers between the disciplines of the work of the curator and that of the conservator become blurred, providing us with a major wealth of new knowledge.

Vídeo seminari restauració

Video of the seminar online

“1900-1904. Reiterated Evocations and Vital process.  Metamorphosis of an Artist Traditionally Trained” – Reyes Jiménez de Garnica, Head of Restoration and Preventive Conservation, Museu Picasso, Barcelona

Estudi Terrats de BarcelonaRadiografia Terrats de Barcelona

Pablo Picasso. Barcelona Rooftops. Barcelona 1903. Oil on canvas. 71 x 111 cm. Ceded by the Ministry of Culture to the Barcelona City Council, 1901. MPB 112. 943. Museu Picasso, Barcelona / Gasull | X-ray image of Barcelona Rooftops that reveals the existence of an earlier picture

Reyes Jiménez de Garnica started her presentation making reference to the academic tradition in which Pablo Picasso had been formed and that he would soon transgress, not only during his artistic maturity, but already from when he was very young, as can be observed in the characteristic fact of his taking advantage of the chromatism and the materiality of the support as formal elements in his early works.  After presenting some examples, she focused on the work of the permanent collection of the museum, Barcelona Rooftops, the object of a recent study led by her which was presented in the exhibition “Journey through the blue: La Vie” and that was the origin of the seminar.  The discovery of a work hidden under Barcelona Rooftops, linked to La Vie, evidenced a work of the artist exploring the very same themes, even though he worked them with a much wider palette than that which up until then had been assumed to belong to the Blue Period.  The thesis that was presented in the exhibition of La Vie about the evidence that the chromatic palette characteristic of 1901 continued appearing in coexistence with works of the Blue Period, was backed up throughout the day as in the case ofthe Art Institute of Chicago, who after learning from it throough the exhibition catalogue, carried out another revision of the work The Old Guitarrist confirming the presence of a wider chromatism in the intermediate layers.


“Picasso’s Tragedy: Metamorphosis of the Painting in a Broader Context” – Ann Hoenigswald, Senior Conservator of Paintings, The National Gallery of Art, Washington


Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903, oil on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York |  X radiograph of The Tragedy

Based on the discoveries of various works under The Tragedy, it’s possible to speculate about the creative process of Picasso, enriching the interpretations of his work.  Although the reuse of previously painted works has traditionally been interpreted as a romantic sign of the economic difficulties the artist was undergoing during his years of bohemian life, Ann Hoenigswald explained that the painting of Picasso functioned under the same creative logic of the found object that the artist applied throughout his creative trajectory, as it can be seen more obviously in his sculptures, collages and even in his explorations in the field of photography.  The particularities of the support provided Picasso with incentives for creation, incorporating the vestiges of previous uses and creations (his own and of others) as an inspiration and part of the new formal composition, often as an expression of the peculiar sense of humour of Picasso.


Woman Ironing Unveiled: Research and Treatment” – Julie Barten, Senior Conservator, Collections and Exhibitions, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Seminari_La planxadoraSeminari_La planxadora_sota

Pablo Picasso. Woman Ironing  (La repasseuse). Bateau-Lavoir, Paris, primavera 1904. Oil on canvas, 116.2 x 73 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser  © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York | Composite infrared image of underlying male portrait by John K. Delaney, National Gallery of Art, Washington

This iconic work from the end of the Blue Period had suffered an attack in the 1950s that was carefully restored, but over time needed to be revised, and that led to an in-depth technical-scientific study of the work that allowed for the elimination of residues of glue that had darkened over time and subtly changed the palette used by the artist.  The general cleaning and the research work about the pigments used have provided new information about the work and even posed the need to date it significantly later than the one currently considered, in a period in which the creativity of the artist changed almost every month and these differences in time make us revise the transitiontowards the Rose Period.  The examination of the underlying work of Woman Ironing presents a portrait of man who could be the painter Ramon Canals, painted with a palette of colours which were very different from those of the definitive painting. The application technique of the colours based on fluid layers also connects technically with the work of our collection Portrait of Benedetta Bianco ( Sra. Canals).


Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room: A Technical Study of an Early Blue Period” – Patricia Favero, Conservator, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Seminari_Habitació blavaSeminari_Habitació blava_sota

Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901. Oli sobre tela, 19 7/8 x 24 1/4 in. Acquired 1927. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | Infrared of Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901). The Phillips Collection, copyright 2008

As in the studies of the other works that were presented in the seminar, this painting, that could be considered as a work from the transition towards the Blue Period,  is executed on top of a previous painting, which in this case is also a portrait of a man painted a short time before (some 3 or 4 months) the final work. Features of the underlying portrait were used for the composition of various elements of the room, and it can observed how the texture of some fragments doesn’t correspond to the upper image but to elements of this portrait. While the underlying painting is executed with well defined outlines, primary colours and thick textures, the upper one shows an important stylistic change with very little time, and with a more restricted palette, mixed before the application and with the incorporation of new pigments, which announced changes belonging to the blue period, with the application of paint in very fine layers. The discovery of white zinc pigments only in one of the intermediate layers opens up the possibility of establishing comparative studies with works from our collection.


“The evolution of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist: a Look Beneath the Surface of a Complex Blue Period Masterpiece” – Allison P. Langley, Conservator, The Art Institute of Chicago

Seminari_Vell guitarristaSemiari_Vell guitarrista_sota

Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York | X-ray Composite

A first look with grazing light at this oil painting on panel painted in Barcelona at the beginning of 1903 or the end of 1904, lets you see an image under the coat of paint: a female face is visible under the blue background.  Studies have exposed that this figure is part of a motherhood, a work clearly outlined in a letter of Pablo Picasso to his friend Max Jacob, which reinforces the idea that the artist often did these types of drawings as a register of the process and not of a preparatory sketch.  The studies have provided further information: on the one hand the existence of another painting under the motherhood, in this case a figure fully linked to the nude woman standing painted in La Vie (and therefore, in Barcelona Rooftops), and substantial modifications of the main figure of The Old Guitarist, which wasn’t originally an old bearded man, but a young man with some features closely linked to studies of masculine faces done by Picasso in his academic works, some of which form part of the collection of the museum.

Photo album of the seminar on Flickr

In conclusion, an exciting day in which significant information was shared, opening the way to a change of approach in the study of the Blue Period and of the connections and the working processes of Picasso.  From the Museu Picasso we are very especially grateful to the speakers for their generosity in sharing theirwork, as well as to the institutions they represent, which have enabled and led these relevant studies.  We are also very grateful to the audience for their commitment towards the research and knowledge, and their participation in this conference.

Anna Guarro

Related links
Watch the video of the seminar online
Travelling through the blue: La Vie and Barcelona Rooftops by Picasso under study
From Cleveland to Barcelona: “Journey through the Blue: La Vie
Seminar on the conservation and restoration of the pastel Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

1 Comment
  • Sofía
    December 4, 2017

    Q guay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha: *