Art Sleuthing: The Painting Beneath The Picasso

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.

Mendiga

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.

Underneath

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.

Horta (2)

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.

Maragall

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.

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Two DC Christmas Events To Calendar

As subscribers know I normally only post twice a week, but for those of you in the DC area I wanted to share two upcoming events that may be of interest. There are always many Christmas-related events here in the capital, and if you don’t put them on your calendar ahead of time, you tend to forget until the day of – or worse, until after they’ve already past. So here goes:

CHRISTMAS POETRY PARTY
Thursday, December 14th @ 6:00 pm
Catholic Information Center
1501 K Street, NW
Metro: McPherson Square
Admission: Free, but please RSVP

This annual gathering is co-hosted by the Thomas More Society of America and the Catholic Information Center, and features seasonal treats as well as Christmas-related poetry (and the odd bit of prose) readings by members and supporters of the Society and the CIC. The event always draws a lively crowd, and I’m honored to have been asked to give recitations for the past several years in a row. Prior attendees have now come to expect that my particular reading will be…a bit different from the others. Please drop in and if you spot me, come over and say hello!

CHRISTMAS CONCERT AND CD RELEASE
Tuesday, December 19th @ 7:30 pm
St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church
Metro: Foggy Bottom
Admission: Free (donations suggested; CD’s available for purchase)

Those of you who follow me on social media know how often I mention what a magnificent job the music ministry does at my parish of St. Stephen’s in Foggy Bottom; you may have even listened to some of my (not-so-great-quality) recordings of them at work, such as this one. Now you have the chance to hear our superb organist/music director Neil Weston – shown here playing the church’s organ – and the members of the choir in action, as they perform Christmas carols and celebrate the release of their latest album, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Stephen’s. Every single person whom I have ever brought to St. Stephen’s has remarked on how glorious the music is, even better than those at other, not-to-be-named Catholic houses of worship in this city of greater size but lesser acoustics. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed if you decide to honor us with your attendance.

 

Three Upcoming DC Events to Calendar

For those of my readers who are in, or who find themselves in, the Nation’s Capital over the next few weeks, there are three upcoming events that I would like to draw to your attention. All are free and open to the public…and may I hasten to add, this includes the non-Catholic public. Plus, at the first you will have the chance to see me make a mockery of myself in public, which is always a very good thing.

Wednesday, December 9th
6:00 pm
Christmas Poetry in DC
Catholic Information Center
1501 K Street NW
(Metro: McPherson Square)

The Thomas More Society of America is sponsoring its annual “Christmas Poetry in DC” evening at the Catholic Information Center, and I’m honored to have been asked to return once again and give a reading. Over the past few years of participating in this event, I’ve become something like the comic relief portion of the program, but then I’m always happy to poke fun at myself. This is always a fun evening with a great turnout, and a wonderful opportunity to meet people, including some of the readers whom you may recognize from media, law, and so forth.

http://thomasmoresocietyofamerica.org/join-us-for-the-3rd-annual-christmas-poetry-in-d-c/

Sunday, December 13th
7:30 pm
Advent Lessons and Carols
St. Luke’s Ordinariate Community
1315 8th Street NW
(Metro: Mt. Vernon Square/Convention Center)

It’s been several years now since the Episcopalian parish of St. Luke’s came into communion with the Catholic Church via the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, thanks to the efforts of Pope Benedict XVI. Now established at Immaculate Conception Church, located directly behind the DC Convention Center, the community is hosting their annual service of Advent Lessons and Carols with music by Palestrina, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and François Poulenc, among others. I was fortunate to attend last year, and was impressed (though not surprised) by the beauty and good taste of the music, but also with the magnificence of the Gothic Revival-style church itself, which I had never visited before. It was built between 1864-1865, and has been beautifully restored to its Victorian glory. Even if you are not Catholic, but appreciate fine architecture and sacred music, do plan to attend if you can.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1517901175187680/

Saturday, December 19th
7:00 pm
Advent Stations
St. Dominic’s Church
630 E Street SW
(Metro: L’Enfant Plaza)

Those who are regular readers know that I am a self-proclaimed fanboy of the Order of Preachers, a.k.a. the Dominicans. We are very fortunate here in DC to have not only the Dominican House of Studies and Priory of the Immaculate Conception, but also the parish of St. Dominic’s, a gorgeous Gothic Revival church built in 1875 and run by the Dominican friars. Chances are if you’ve been on 395 heading to or from Capitol Hill, you’ve seen the huge, stone steeple of St. Dominic’s from the highway. This is the second year in which the friars will be hosting Advent Stations in the church, and you really want to make the time to attend this if you can. The entire service is conducted in a completely darkened church, lit only by quite literally thousands of candles lining the altars, stairs, floors, and held by the attendees. It is really an experience, and the atmosphere is like stepping back a thousand years or more. There will be readings/preaching, as well as superb music, followed by a reception in the church hall afterwards.

http://stdominicchurch.org/advent-stations/

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Immaculate Conception Church, DC