Picasso was just 22 through most of 1904, the year he is thought to have painted “Woman Ironing,” a haunting image in muted tones of blue and gray of a skeletal woman, her eyes hollow, her cheeks sunken, pressing down on an iron with all her might. Money was tight for him. He was living in Barcelona and making periodic visits to Paris, and he would often start a painting, abandon it and begin another using the same canvas, a practice he continued throughout his career.
For years conservators and art historians have known that hidden beneath the surface of “Woman Ironing,” long considered an example of his Blue Period, is the upside-down ghost of another painting — a three-quarter-length portrait of a man with a mustache that was first seen in images taken with an infrared camera in 1989. But the big questions — who the man was, and even whether it was Picasso who painted him — have remained unanswered.
Initially some experts thought the image might be a portrait of Benet Soler, a Barcelona tailor and friend of Picasso’s who helped support him during those lean years and whom he often painted. “We could see something next to the man,” said Carol Stringari, chief conservator and deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. “And we tried to convince ourselves it was a sewing machine. But with that early infrared equipment it was hard to tell what it was.”
“Woman Ironing” was given to the Guggenheim Museum by the German dealer and collector Justin K. Thannhauser in 1978 and has since been one of the museum’s most prized possessions. It is the first canvas visitors see as they climb the ramp of the museum’s rotunda to view “Picasso Black and White,” a blockbuster exhibition that opened this month.
One afternoon in late September, Ms. Stringari, with Julie Barten, the museum’s senior conservator, stood in front of “Woman Ironing” at the Guggenheim’s conservation studio. Ms. Barten had just finished cleaning the painting, part of a yearlong process of conservation and close study that turned out to be a lot more complex than anyone had imagined but that yielded both a truer version of the painting on the surface and a far clearer sense of the underlying one.
In 1952 Thannhauser lent the painting to the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. A thief entered the museum and tried to cut it out of its frame by slicing two sides of the canvas (including the bottom, where Picasso’s signature was) before he was caught. “He didn’t get the painting but he did considerable damage,” Ms. Barten said.
At the time a Paris conservator repaired the torn sides and lined the canvas with linen. In the process he left glue on the surface. “There was flaking that was so fine it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye,” Ms. Barten said. “And the glue had turned a patchy veil of yellowish brown, discoloring the surface and obscuring the subtleties of his palette and brushwork.”
For months Ms. Barten painstakingly lifted off the tiny bits of glue from the canvas with sable brushes and cotton swabs. “We watched her emerge,” Ms. Stringari said, describing how the woman’s appearance — and the entire painting — changed. “There was a better sense of light, depth and far more atmosphere,” she added, “and you saw Picasso’s lively brushwork.”
Ms. Barten and Ms. Stringari also discovered a lot of pink tones — in the background and in the laundry — in what had originally seemed to Ms. Stringari as a “flat, grayish and muddy” image. There was even a faint pink cast to the fabric of the woman’s dress. “It no longer looks as intensely blue but it is a transitional work, a move from Picasso’s Blue Period and foreshadowing his Rose Period.”
In order to get a clearer picture of the figure beneath the “Woman Ironing,” the Guggenheim conservators called in John K. Delaney, senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Using two types of sophisticated infrared cameras — hyper-spectral and multi-spectral — Dr. Delaney was able to produce images far more detailed than any that had been seen before.
For the first time the shape of the man’s eyes and the upturn of his mustache were visible, as were the part in his hair and a fashionable red cravat around his neck. “You could see details like the way his sleeves are not rolled up, but buttoned,” Dr. Delaney said. This new technology also revealed that Picasso had struggled with placement of one of the man’s eyes, trying to render it in two different positions.
Ms. Stringari said, “He is standing before what looks like either an easel or a pedestal for a sculpture, but I think it’s more likely to be an easel.” She added that, thinking the figure might be an artist, “we were looking for a paintbrush in his hand, but he doesn’t have one.”
Before going deeper into the question of the man’s identity, however, the conservators focused on whether the hidden painting was by Picasso and not simply an old canvas that had belonged to one of his artist friends. They found, on very close inspection, Ms. Stringari said, that “the drippy quality of the paint and the manner of the brush strokes were similar to several other paintings Picasso had made during that time.” It was enough to confirm his authorship.
The angle of the man’s body — which turns so that his face is looking at what could be a mirror — as well as his piercing eyes made some people think the image could be the beginning of a self-portrait. But that theory was dismissed because Picasso didn’t have a mustache at the time, nor did the man look very much like him.
So Ms. Stringari, Ms. Barten and John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, began studying subjects Picasso had painted during those years along with photographs of his friends, comparing them with new and old infrared images of the figure as well as with X-rays of the painting. “It was sort of a mental construct, a composite,” Ms. Barten said. “Different techniques gave us different clues.”
But with each clue came more theories. Mr. Richardson, relying on instinct rather than technology, studied scores of drawings, paintings and photographs of all the likely subjects. He methodically ruled out all but one: Mateu Fernández de Soto, a sculptor and brother of Ángel Fernández de Soto, a dandy whose portrait Picasso painted in 1903. Both men were friends of the artist’s.
Picasso also painted Mateu on occasion, and shared apartments and studios with him in Barcelona and Paris. “The style of the portrait and the color palette suggests the man was painted earlier than 1904-5 and most likely around 1901,” Mr. Richardson said, referring to Picasso’s colorful style around 1900, when he came to Paris. “There is a tenderness and an intimacy” to the portrait, he said, adding, “You really feel this man is an artist and someone Picasso knew well.”
But Ms. Stringari, Ms. Barten and Carmen Giménez, the curator who organized “Picasso Black and White,” disagree. “We think it looks more like Ricard Canals, another artist,” Ms. Stringari said.
Mr. Richardson argues that even though the man may look similar to Canals, it’s not likely Picasso would have painted him around 1901. For one thing, “Canals was on the make,” he said. “He regarded himself as Picasso’s rival.” The two men were not friends until later.
Another detail that makes Mr. Richardson think it is not Canals: the part in his hair, which is not the same side as the part depicted in drawings, photographs and paintings of Canals.
“But even Picasso’s own part changed all the time,” Ms. Stringari argued. She said she also believes “Woman Ironing,” may have been painted slightly later than everyone has thought, perhaps in late 1904 or even early 1905, because the newly discovered pink tones are suggestive of the Rose Period. According to this theory Picasso could have painted the portrait underneath in the spring of 1904, which would make Canals a more likely subject.
“I’m not saying it’s not possible that it’s de Soto, but I don’t see it,” Ms. Stringari said. “As much research we do, we still come up with more and more questions, and those questions may never be answered.”