After Pablo Picasso completed The Old Guitarist around 1904 the painting became one of the most iconic pieces of his Blue Period. It seems to depict a poor and fragile musician and his instrument. However, experts have recently uncovered a secret lurking beneath the work of art.
Picasso is among the most significant artists of the 20th century. He was born in the Spanish city of Málaga in 1881 and displayed an amazing talent for art from a young age. In fact, his mother would later claim that Picasso’s earliest words were piz, piz – a shortened version of the word lápiz, which means “pencil” in Spanish.
Picasso’s early talent was fostered by his father, who was himself an artist. He taught his son oil painting and figure drawing techniques from the age of seven. But when Picasso was 13, it’s rumored that his father believed that he was already a better artist than him. As a result, he reportedly promised to stop painting. However, works by Picasso’s father from later years throw this story into doubt.
In 1891 Picasso moved with his family to A Coruña, where his father began working as a professor at the city’s School of Fine Arts. They remained there for four years before relocating to Barcelona. It was here that Picasso began to thrive, and he would later consider the city as his home for many years to come.
Aged 13, Picasso won a place at Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts – where his father also worked. To gain entry into the academy, Picasso had to complete an entrance exam. This process could take some students up to a month to finish. However, the young teen needed only a week.
Three years later, Picasso’s talents were clear to see. As a result, his father and uncle wanted him to attend Spain’s best art school: the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. With that in mind, he set off to the Spanish capital on his own. However, formal tuition wasn’t for him and, as a consequence, he soon started to skip class.
Nevertheless, Madrid was an influential place for Picasso. Visiting The Prado – Spain’s national art museum – the young talent could view works by Spanish masters such as Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Zurbarán. However, one of his favorites was El Greco, a Greek artist known for his expressionistic style and early use of Cubism.
Later on in his career, Picasso too would favor an experimental style, using elements of Surrealism and Cubism. However, his early works were more naturalistic. He began his career as a painter in 1894. But it wasn’t until 1901 that Picasso set out on his first distinctive body of work.
Picasso’s work is often grouped together in periods. And one of the first major categories in the artist’s career is known as the Blue Period, which lasted from 1901 until 1904. During this time, Picasso’s work was often somber in style and subject matter, using a monochromatic palette of green and blues.
During Picasso’s Blue Period, the artist was inspired by his native Spain, though he mostly worked in Paris, France, at the time. He was also influenced by the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas, who committed suicide in February 1901. Picasso reportedly once said, “I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’ death.”
It’s believed that Picasso sank into a deep depression in the months after Casagemas’ suicide. The normally social character is said to have withdrawn from his friends. It was then that cool tones began to dominate his work, and the painting that is generally considered to be his first of his Blue Period was called Casagemas in His Coffin.
Before his depression, Picasso’s early career had been looking promising. However, as he became preoccupied with themes of poverty and outcasts in his work, he became less celebrated. People didn’t want to buy works from Picasso’s Blue Period to display in their homes. As a consequence, the artist suffered financially.
Some of the characters that Picasso painted in his Blue Period included beggars, prostitutes and street urchins. He also regularly depicted the elderly, the frail and the blind. Other subjects that he would often paint were female nudes and women with children. Meanwhile, major themes of these works included poverty, loneliness and despair.
Perhaps the best-known painting of Picasso’s Blue Period is The Old Guitarist. Created between late 1903 and early 1904, the image depicts a blind and elderly musician, dressed in ragged clothing. The man is weathered in his appearance and is seen slumping over his guitar as he strums on the streets of Barcelona.
While most of The Old Guitarist is painted in hues of blue, the man’s instrument is depicted as brown. This shift of color helps the guitar to stand out against a muted backdrop, making it the focal point of the work. With this in mind, some analysis suggests that the instrument represents the only glimmer of hope in the old guitarist’s life.
It’s believed that Picasso could empathize with the penniless musician, having lived in poverty himself for most of 1902. And as work from the artist’s Blue Period began to attract more attention, some thought that The Old Guitarist reflected the financial troubles that he had been experiencing at the time.
And that’s not the only way that Picasso could perhaps relate to his subject. As we’ve covered, the guitar is viewed as a beacon of hope in the musician’s life. And this may have spoken to Picasso, who had his own art to turn to for solace whenever the going got tough. Therefore, the painting has since become one of Picasso’s most prominent pieces from the era.
Like many of the paintings that Picasso produced during his Blue Period, The Old Guitarist appears to have been directly influenced by the work of El Greco. Picasso was known to admire his fellow artist and the musician’s angular pose and elongated arms and legs seem reminiscent of the style of the 16th-century master.
But while Picasso painted the old man’s figure to appear cramped and contorted within the frame, the oil on panel image is actually larger than you may think. It approximately measures four by two-and-two-thirds feet. And it currently forms part of The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in the United States.
The Old Guitarist was acquired by The Art Institute of Chicago way back in 1926. At the time, it was the first Picasso painting collected by an American museum. Furthermore, it’s also widely believed to have been the first of Picasso’s works to be acquired for a museum’s permanent collection anywhere in the world.
With that in mind, The Old Guitarist remains one of Picasso’s most significant paintings, even decades after his death in 1973. However, what makes the piece particularly intriguing is the discovery that was found lurking beneath the paint in recent years. Because, if you take a closer look at the work of art, it becomes clear that the man it depicts is not alone in the frame.
Peering closely at the painting – specifically at the empty space above the old man’s ear – it’s possible to make out two eyes and the faint outline of a face. The haunting image of the mysterious figure aroused the curiosity of The Art Institute of Chicago. So the institute decided to uncover the secrets behind Picasso’s painting of The Old Guitarist.
With that in mind, the institute’s conservation department took it upon themselves to investigate the important painting. And by conducting X-rays on the work of art, they discovered not one but two hidden compositions beneath Picasso’s famous depiction of the guitar player.
The first hidden picture corresponded to the ghostly eyes and face that can be made out above the man’s ear. In full, it appeared to depict a youthful woman sat in the nude with her child kneeling by her, feeding from her breast. In that image, investigators could also make out a cow and calf.
Interestingly, Picasso once sent a sketch he’d made of a mother and child to his friend, the French painter and poet, Max Jacob. In the note, Picasso revealed he was in the process of painting the image. And the drawing certainly looks similar to the scene depicted behind The Old Guitarist.
Meanwhile, the second image hidden behind the painting was an elderly woman sitting down with her arms stretching out. Picasso made a sketch of a female seated in a similar position to that of the figure in 1902-03. On the image of The Old Guitarist, it’s the old woman that forms the deepest layer, with the mother and child on top of that and then the musician.
Interestingly, the image of the woman and child featured a layer of red paint, which was out of character for Picasso during his Blue Period. However, that is sandwiched between two coatings of blue paint from the other depictions. All three of the images feature similar pigments, including ultramarine, Prussian blue and vermillion.
The hidden images behind The Old Guitarist were explored further in 2019. It was then that scientists in London recreated Picasso’s lost painting of the young woman, years after X-ray technology had first located it in 1998. And the resulting image – which has become known as La Femme Perdue –was simply staggering.
So that they could recreate La Femme Perdue, George Cann and Anthony Bourached – scientists from University College London – used a technique known as neural style transfer. Neural analysis technology can recognize shapes and layers within an image, allowing them to be cross-referenced with other paintings to determine when they might have been drawn.
In their 2019 paper Raiders Of The Lost Art, Cann and Bourached explained their scientific method. They wrote, “We present a novel method of reconstructing lost artwork, by applying neural style transfer to x-radiographs of artwork with secondary interior artwork beneath a primary exterior, so as to reconstruct lost artwork.”
Cann and Bourached added, “Here we attempt to broaden the insight into an artist’s intentions, mistakes, and musings by reconstructing artwork that has been hidden under primary exterior of some of the most inspirational artists in history. We believe that this gives one of many possible inferences of what inspiration existed in the artist’s mind.”
Amazingly, The Old Guitarist isn’t the only one of Picasso’s paintings that has been found to contain hidden images. In fact, the artist often provided clues on the surface of his art that hinted at buried works below. With this in mind, Picasso once said, “What comes out in the end is the result of the discarded finds.”
It’s not unusual for artists to reuse a panel or canvas that they have previously painted on. Many a time, creatives might do this so that they can save money and materials. And though Picasso suffered the main of his financial troubles during his Blue Period, he continued to rework paintings throughout his life.
One such example is Picasso’s 1903 painting The Tragedy. The image depicts three downcast figures standing on a beach and was created at the height of the artist’s Blue Period. Discrepancies in the paint hinted at a hidden image beneath. And using infrared technology, investigators discovered a series of random sketches including faces and caricatures below the paint.
Meanwhile, in 2014 art conservators and curators revealed that they had discovered a portrait of a man hidden beneath Picasso’s famous painting The Blue Room. Again infrared technology was used to uncover the figure, who is wearing a bow tie and resting his head on his hand.
Art experts had suspected that something lurked beneath the surface of The Blue Room for a long time. They had pointed to mismatched brushstrokes within the work of art that didn’t appear to fit with the depiction of the bathing woman in Picasso’s studio. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that an X-ray proved their suspicions right.
When the hidden image was finally revealed as a portrait, it was a significant discovery for those who’d worked on the image over the years. Conservator at The Phillips Collection Patricia Favero told Associated Press, “It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special.”
However, finding the mystery man created yet more questions for art experts. Favero explained, “The second reaction was, ‘Well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question.” The image is not believed to be a self-portrait of Picasso. However, there’s a chance that it may depict Ambrose Villard, a Parisian art dealer who’d put on Picasso’s debut show in 1901.
Hidden images have also been discovered beneath the surface of Picasso’s La Vie and Woman Ironing paintings. Explaining why the artist may have buried so many images, curator of The Phillips Collection Susan Behrends Frank told Associated Press, “When he had an idea, you know, he just had to get it down and realize it.”
And according to Frank’s colleague Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection, art fans were enjoying the new discoveries in Picasso’s work. She said, “Our audiences are hungry for this. It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle.”