Thanks to modern technology, we are more accustomed to the idea that painters have re-used their own canvases to create different works later on, for various reasons. we don’t often appreciate that sometimes, an artist might reuse the canvas of another artist, as well. Such is the case with a new discovery made at Northwestern University in Chicago, after examining a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (“AGO”). That story is interesting enough in itself, but I hope to add some armchair art sleuthing to it, if you’re willing to bear with me.
“La Miséreuse accroupie” (1902) [N.B. which I would have translated as, “Crouching Beggar Woman”, but be that as it may] is a painting from Picasso’s “Blue Period” of 1901-1904, when many of his works were heavily blue in tone and indeed in subject matter. At the time, the young Picasso was both professionally frustrated and severely depressed, a combination that affected his palette and his outlook. He was also spending a great deal of time traveling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, trying to make a name for himself, and painting in both cities. Alongside his friend the Catalan Post-Impressionist painter Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), with whom he shared studio space in Paris, he spent time observing socially marginalized people, such as the mendicants who sat outside of church doors and on street corners, begging for money or food.
Via a partnership between the AGO and the National Gallery here in DC, scientists at Northwestern were asked to closely examine the painting, since it was apparent that another painting lay underneath the surface that we currently see. Using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and other techniques, they found that the present work was painted over a landscape painting, which had been turned 90 degrees, and elements of which were used by Picasso in completing the final image. It is not known who painted the landscape, and the article does not identify what the landscape depicts.
However, gentle reader, while I cannot tell you who painted the landscape, I believe that I can tell you what that landscape depicts: in fact, I recognized it immediately, given the Barcelona context for the painting’s origin.
The round, temple-like structure at the center of the underlying image is almost certainly the pavilion dedicated to Danaë, mistress of Zeus and mother of the Greek hero Perseus, which is located inside the park known as the Laberint d’Horta (“Labyrinth of Horta”), in the NE end of the city. Named for its intricate maze of hedges, the garden was originally laid out in the late 18th century as part of a country estate, and was expanded by the same family over the ensuing decades. Eventually it became a major cultural meeting point, not only for high society, but for thinkers as well.
Like many of the northern neighborhoods of modern-day Barcelona, Horta was originally a town located a few miles outside of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the well-to-do began to build weekend homes for themselves in these areas, so as to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and more open spaces afforded by these neighborhoods in the foothills of the Collserola Mountains that ring the city. Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell development project is perhaps the most famous example of how the Catalan bourgeoisie began heading to the local hills on the weekend, building Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts mansions for themselves. Over time, the city grew up to swallow the empty spaces that lay between these villages and the downtown core.
By the late 19th century, even though it was still privately held by the family who originally commissioned it, the Laberint d’Horta was functioning as a sort of mini-Bois de Boulogne, where fashionable people could go to stroll or sit outdoors, and sometimes to hear concerts or see plays. When Spanish kings and queens came to visit the city, receptions and entertainments were often provided for them there. Artists, architects, and writers from the Modernista movement, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau, came up to the park to stretch their legs and think great thoughts.
Here, for example, is an 1898 photograph of Joan Maragall i Gorina (1860-1911), Catalonia’s greatest poet, along with the painter, critic, and architect Miquel Utrillo i Morlius (1862-1934), father of the French painter and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The two men are shown standing just outside the park’s Danaë Pavilion, which (I believe) is shown in the original work beneath Picasso’s painting. Picasso knew and admired both of these men, as well as the others with whom they formed the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Barcelona while he was an art student there.
In fact, Miquel Utrillo was one of the first publishers to take Picasso’s work seriously. He not only helped to organize and promote Picasso’s first participation in a commercial art exhibition, at the Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona in 1901, but he also wrote about the young artist in magazines which he had either co-founded or published. Meanwhile, Maragall’s embrace of a kind of intellectual anarchism, combined with imagery of curving, undulating landscape being evocative of the female form in his poetry and essays, had a lifetime impact on Picasso’s work.
Given the fairly apparent relationship of the landscape painting to the appearance of the gardens around the temple of Danaë at Horta, as well as knowing something more about the importance of Horta as a location during the period of time when Picasso painted over this scene, I’m fairly confident that this identification is correct, as far as subject matter. As to who actually painted the landscape, there are various possibilities to consider.
Could the landscape have been the work of a fellow, struggling young artist in Barcelona, who was unsatisfied with his painting and about to throw it away, when the equally-struggling Picasso asked if he could take the canvas? Could it be a canvas pinched from Picasso’s artist father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who taught at the art school in Barcelona and, when not painting images of birds, painted somewhat conventional landscapes and seascapes? Or could it be an early, teenaged work by Picasso himself, left behind in the closet at his parents’ apartment, which he decided to repurpose rather than throw in the trash?
Perhaps science will be able to tell us, but for now, that’s one mystery solved, another to go.