WILMINGTON, Del. -- An art conservator at Winterthur Museum, Library and Gardens was part of a team of scientists and art experts who used X-ray and infrared imagery and other high-tech scans to find a hidden painting beneath one of Pablo Picasso's first masterpieces, The Blue Room.
Dr. Jennifer Mass was one of four scientists asked by the Phillips Collection in Washington to examine the painting or confirm the image of a bow-tied man with his face resting on his hand.
Now Phillips conservators hope to find out who the man is in the painting, which is touring South Korea through early 2015.
"The opportunity to work on a painting like this is a reward for us," Mass said Tuesday evening, in between calls from major news organizations and an appearance on BBC. "We're just fascinated by Picasso and this period of his life, and the ways that he worked and the images he painted. So to us, the work is the reward."
Mass, who is the laboratory director and senior scientist at Winterthur's Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory and also a faculty member in the Winterthur/University of Delaware master's program in Art Conservation, first began examining The Blue Room in the spring of 2012. Her lab hit it with an X-ray beam that's able to look at layers of paint and provide information about what pigments are present. They can use the images to say on an elemental level what is there, and that enables them to be able to say things like exactly where he used emerald green, chromium green or copper green pigments.
The Winterthur scientists, who included just-graduated student Alyssa Hull, who wrote her thesis paper about The Blue Room, also took tiny samples of paint â?? the size of a period in a Times New Roman size 10 font, Mass says. That gave them additional information about the pigments in the surface image and the buried image.
In the fall of 2012, the Winterthur conservators accompanied the painting to Cornell University, where it was examined in a particle accelerator called the Synchrotron. Yes, Mass said, that does sound like something out of a science-fiction movie â?? and the images look like something out of one, too.
At the same time, John Delaney at the National Gallery of Art was using hyperspectral imaging techniques on the painting, seeking molecular information.
About a month ago, the scientists gathered at the Phillips to review data. On Tuesday, Mass received a box of new tiny samples to try to answer some more questions.
Conservators suspected there might be something under The Blue Room, which has been part of The Phillips Collection since 1927. Brushstrokes don't match the composition that depicts a woman bathing in Picasso's studio.
It was normal for Picasso to paint over other paintings, Mass says. Estimates she's seen range from 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 of his blue period paintings were done over another work. She laughs when she's asked if it might be his way of dissing whoever was on that canvas first.
"1901 was a very transitional year for him," she says. "He was moving away from scenes of nightlife in Paris and the artists and writers and actors and dancers and moving into this very somber time after the death of a close friend. There's a lot that's changing in his style."
Winterthur is asked several times a month to look at paintings or other objects to see if there's something underneath, she says. They do it for the research and publication and hope to add to the knowledge of artists' working methods, techniques and materials.
Even so, she says, it's amazing to hold one of the masterpieces in your own hands, like she did with The Blue Room.
"It's thrilling and terrifying and electrifying all at the same time," she says. "Especially to have this object of such incredible beauty and craftsmanship and passion and be able to study it using the latest scientific methods to further our understanding of Picasso and his work and to further the preservation of his work for future generations â?? it's thrilling for us."
(Contributing: The Associated Press)
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