Do you think a young and relatively unknown Picasso, struggling to pay for food, knew that the canvases he was painting and repainting would become some of the most celebrated works of twentieth-century modern art? Created at the beginning of his career, from 1901–1907, the works of the Blue and Rose periods offer a glimpse of the evolution of a young genius. Many of these masterpieces, including two outstanding works on loan from the AGO Collection, are currently on display at The Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, as part of its landmark exhibition, The Young Picasso – Blue and Rose Periods.
One of these paintings is La Soupe, which Picasso made in Barcelona in late 1902 to early 1903. Using a range of blues, including the rich, dark Prussian Blue, Picasso depicts a woman who solemnly bows her head as she exchanges a bowl of soup with a gracefully posed young girl. A recurring subject in works from this period, La Soupe depicts common people doing everyday things. However, Picasso has chosen to depict the figures in classical poses with ritualistic gestures, infusing the scene with a sense of timelessness and monumentality.
The second loan is La Miséreuse accroupie. Painted in January 1902 after Picasso had returned to Barcelona from Paris, this Blue Period work depicts a lonely woman who lowers her head and shuts her eyes as she crouches before the viewer. Picasso chose to clothe the women in shawls and robes reminiscent of the Virgin Mary as depicted in historical Spanish paintings. In this way, Picasso subversively transforms this marginalized, downtrodden woman into a religiously charged figure, worthy of reverence and empathy.
Since 2015, Kenneth Brummel, our Assistant Curator of Modern Art, and Sandra Webster-Cook, our former Senior Conservator of Paintings, have been collaborating with renowned researchers from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and The Northwestern University / Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), to visualize and understand the underlying layers of La Soupe and La Miséreuse accroupie. Using innovative scanning techniques, this international team has revealed secrets that have changed the way we look at Picasso.
As reported by The New York Times in 2018, a landscape painted by an artist active in Barcelona at the turn of the century lies beneath the cloaked figure in La Miséreuse accroupie. Picasso used some of the contours from this landscape to shape the curves of the crouching woman’s back. According to Brummel, this hints at young Picasso’s desire to associate himself with Spanish painting after he returned to Barcelona from Paris in January 1902.
Scans of La Soupe also showed interesting results. As noted in a Toronto Star article from 2018, 13 layers of paint lie beneath the surface of this incredible work. The findings suggest that Picasso scraped the underlying composition before painting the scene we now see on the visible surface. According to Brummel, this scraped-down composition contains elements of a still-life painting. Stay tuned for more details!
La Soupe and La Miséreuse accroupie will return to our Margaret Eaton Gallery this summer before being featured in a major exhibition on Picasso’s Blue Period, co-organized by AGO and The Phillips Collection, in 2020.
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