MOLAB I – Following the Trail of Picasso: Reasoned Study of Six Portraits of Youth

I – Early stages of Picasso through material characterization of different portraits

On November 27th we presented in the Lecture hall of the University of Barcelona a research project about the study of the technique of the young Picasso.

The project, called Early stages of Picasso through material characterization of different portraits, has been the result of a trilateral agreement between the Museu Picasso and the University of Barcelona with the European project CHARISMA-MOLAB.

Thanks to the scientific and technical support provided by the mobile laboratory MOLAB and the team from the department of chemical analysis of the University of Barcelona, we have made an in-depth study of the evolution of the technique of the pictorial beginnings of Picasso, by means of a selection of six portraits carried out between 1895 and 1900.


Technicians from the MOLAB working in the department of restoration of the Museu

Technicians from the MOLAB working in the department of restoration of the Museu

The Museu Picasso of Barcelona is well aware that the studies of the materials are a key element for documenting the collections and it has been promoting and developing research initiatives for more than five years. Our aim is to obtain information contrasted with the knowledge we have at our disposal of the artist and his surroundings, and to conserve the works based on a better understanding of his creative process. In short, we want to delve into the material history of the collection, structuring the technical and material contents based on objective information.



During an intense week in the month of July 2013, the restoration workshop of the museum was transformed into a laboratory. They were five marathon days, in which we generated a large amount of essential information so as to be able to complete our initial studies of these six works.

Today, after two years of work in the elaboration of the results and with contrasted data, we can confirm that we have opened up new interpretations of the works and in the certainty that they will serve to find new ties with other paintings.


Molab. Departamenr de restauració del Museu PicassoTechnicians from the MOLAB working in the department of restoration of the Museu

Technicians from the MOLAB working in the department of restoration of the Museu



-X-ray fluorescence (XRF)
-Infrared spectroscopy (mid-FTIR)
-Ultraviolet-Visible Fluorescence (UV-Vis)
-Raman spectroscopy
-Image have acquired of Infrared Reflectography at 12 wavelength intervals (between 952-2265 nm)
-Radiography RX


MPB 110.014 Home amb boinaRetrat de Carles Casagemas

Pablo Picasso. Old man, 1895. Oil on canvas. 58’5 x 42’8. MPB 110.014 | Pablo Picasso. Man in a beret, 1895. Oil on canvas. 50,5 x 336. MPB 110.058 | Pablo Picasso. Carles Casagemas, 1899-1900. Oil on canvas. 55 x 45. MPB 110.022

Josep Cardona i FurróHome a l'estil de El GrecoAutoretrat amb perruca

Pablo Picasso. Josep Cardona Furró, 1899. Oil on canvas. 47,5 x 35,2. MPB 110.026 | Pablo Picasso. Man, after El Greco, 1899. Oil on canvas. 34,4 x31,2. MPB 110.034 | Pablo Picasso. Self-portrait with wig, 1898-1900. Oil on canvas. 55’8 x 45’8. MPB 110.053

So as to establish the action framework, not just any portrait from youth was chosen, but those pieces that would help us to establish reference patterns applicable for future studies.

The work methodology was based on a double vision. We began by looking at the dermis layer of the painting, observing the types of cracks and brushstrokes, and then taking a deeper look at the internal layers and getting to know the physical or stratigraphic structure with non-visible radiation and the elemental composition of the materials with the help of auxiliary techniques.

By means of the comparison of the images with visible light and combined with an in-depth look, we extracted physiochemical data which went beyond the epidermis, such as the use of certain pigments in early works with the Old Gentleman. We revealed surprises such as Man in a beret, which hides a previous composition closely linked to the work of his father. In the Portrait of Josep Cardona Furró, we discovered that Picasso worked on this canvas three times. In Man, after El Greco, we took advantage of a fragment from the academy and this opened up a field of research for finding other fragments that had disappeared. With the portrait of Carles Casagemas, as well as discovering a previous hidden composition, we managed to understand the specific cause of the degradation that the painting presented. Finally we explored Self-portrait with wig, the central work and axis around which our project was focused, in which the creative vitality of the artist is reflected in the set of images that were wisely modified and that we will bring to light.

All the paintings are oil on canvas with different structural complexity. Donated by Picasso in 1970, the six had been restored following the same pattern, they were glue relined, with the consequent formal modifications and the eventual interferences with regard to the determination of the materials.





In la Coruña, at the age of 14, Picasso was already carrying out a very mature and coherent production. He learnt to paint in this city and for the first time exhibited his works publicly.

In the 94-95 course he was student of his own father in the subject “Painting and copy of nature” from the School of Fine Arts of la Coruña. For this reason, we started our study with two paintings produced there in 1895, Old Gentleman and Man in a beret.

The result of the first work studied, Old Gentleman (MPB 110014), approaches us to the use of colour. Produced with a palette of earthy colours and linked to the tradition of Spanish painting.  The fitting in of the figure adjusts to the proportion of the support, which in this case is a thick cloth fabric.

The radiographic image is quite radiotransparent and shows no traces of an underlying painting. Despite this, the RI study shows some traces still to be identified, leaving the process open to new studies.

[Click on the image for more information]

Foto 1970MPB 110.014rx-110014Retrato de anciano-1700-ir

1- MPB 110.014. Francisco Melich Photo
2- Pablo Picasso. Old man, 1895. Oil on canvas. 58’5 x 42’8. MPB 110.014
3- MPB 110.014. Radiographic image
4- MPB 110.01. RI reflectometry Image (1700 nm)

But the work which confirms the fact that Picasso doesn’t exist without the figure of his father, José Ruiz Blasco, is Man in a beret (MPB 110058).

This portrait responds to a Picasso who is more sure of himself and is resolved with more maturity than Old gentleman, with a more complex presentation of the personage, of three quarters and richer in nuances.

[Click on the image for more information]

Mpb-110.058Man in a beretretouched Colom-Home amb boinaColos-Home amb boinaHombre amb boina 1700

1- MPB 110.058. Francisco Melich Photo
2- Pablo Picasso. Man in a beret, 1895. Oil on canvas. 50,5 x 336. MPB 110.058
3- MPB 110.058. Radiographic image
4 -MPB 110.058. Radiographic retouched image
5- MPB 110.058. RI reflectometry Image (1700 nm)

The X-ray image reveals an underlying composition. If we turn the support 90º, we can see the shape of two doves in horizontal format. By means of the images obtained with a scanner at 1930nm we can identify the black stain of the dove.

When Picasso painted Man in a beret, the inferior layer, that corresponds to the doves, must have been sufficiently dry. Through the cracks in the visible layer we can glimpse a range of lighter colours.

This discovery places us in a situation of enormous interest, because if the underlying painting is by Picasso, this would be the first medium format painting known dedicated to the topic of doves. Doves are a motif that has appeared beforehand. Many drawings and small boards have been conserved, but it would be here, in La Coruña, in which he would go deeper into the theme despite the fact that no canvas is known in this format.

Pablo Picasso. Pigeons and other drawings. La Corunya, 1894. Graphite pencil on paper. 26,4 x 20,2 cm. Donació Pablo Picasso, 1970. MPB 110.864R | Pablo Picasso. Dovecote. c. 1895. Oil on wood. 9,9 x 15,3 cm. Donació Ruiz Picasso, Pablo, 1970. MPB 110.131

We cannot rule out the possibility either that it is a work that had been rejected by his father, that the son would take advantage of at a later stage. The horizontal format and the dimension of the support (50 x 36 cm) approach the size of many of the works signed by his father and conserved today, the majority being in private collections. Most of them are variations about this theme with simple compositions of two or three doves in different positions.

Don José wasn’t an artist of great imagination. But as a good teacher and knowledgeable in the technique, he passed on to his son the secrets of a trade that he himself had consolidated by means of copying and repetition.

The museum has an album of drawings (MPB 110923) carried out in La Coruña between 1894-95, which after carrying out this research project have taken on a new dimension. On one of its pages (MPB 111497R), Picasso did three sketches in sepia ink in which the works can be recognised of Old Gentleman, Man in beret, and over them the sketch of two doves.

Drawing Album (MPB 110.923) | Pablo Picasso. Various sketches. Sepia wash on paper, 1894-1895. 19 x 12,6 cm. Donació Ruiz Picasso, Pablo, 1970. MPB 111.497R

It doesn’t seem likely that they are two preparatory sketches for subsequently doing the paintings, if as we believe they are portraits done from life, and probably painted in the same class as his father. The similarity of the two sketches compared with the paintings studied lead us to think otherwise: they are two sketches done, based on already finished paintings and using a quick technique such as an ink brush. We need to find out why the topic of doves was included in the same work session, even if we can deduce that it was a reason which was more than familiar.



Reyes Jiménez

Preventive conservation and restoration

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    December 11, 2015


  • Reyes Jiménez
    December 11, 2015

    Comentarios como el suyo son un estímulo para seguir trabajando.Muchas gracias.
    Ha sido una labor apasionante para todo el departamento y es una satisfacción poder compartirlo y saber un poco más cada día sobre el proceso creativo del artista.

  • Xabi Gaztelumendi
    December 15, 2015

    Enhorabuena. Fantástica labor de investigación y muy buenas también las fotos publicadas en esta página. Son de utilidad para los que estudiamos a Picasso por nuestra cuenta. El Museo Picasso Barcelona es muy interesante sobre todo, por centrarse en gran medida en su primera etapa. Saludos. Xabi

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