Characteristic of his Blue Period (1901-1904), Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” (Figure 1) is a monochromatic portrait of a woman, painted in sorrowful tones of blue, occasionally warmed by shades of grey. Dated 1904, the artwork was given to the Guggenheim Museum in 1978 by the German collector, Justin Thannhauser, and has remained one of the most precious items in their collection.
Before finding a home within the Guggenheim, Thannhauser loaned the painting to the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1952. There, an attempt was made to steal and cut the painting out of its frame, causing considerable damage by the thief who was soon caught. The artwork was eventually repaired but art historians and conservators began to notice color seeping through the grey tones, leading them to further inspection. They discovered a portrait of a mustached man hidden beneath the layers of paint.
First seen by conservators through the lens of an infrared camera in 1989, the hidden painting brought to light a series of questions: Who was this man and why had Picasso abandoned his portrait? These questions remain unanswered.
In 1904, Picasso, who was just twenty-two years old, had recently settled in Paris. He began working among some post-impressionist masters such as Edgar Degas and was in search of his artistic signature element. Barely making ends meet, with no extra money for supplies, Picasso would often begin a painting, discard it, and re-use the same canvas for another painting. That, perhaps, could explain the hidden image of the unidentified young man that haunts the portrait of this rawboned, hollow-cheeked woman, crouched over an iron.
Carol Stringari, Senior Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum proposed, “(The man is) standing before what looks like an easel or a pedestal for a sculpture.” His body is turned to the right as if he is looking in a mirror. This hypothesis led historians to believe that this could have been the beginning of a self-portrait, although that theory has been dismissed since the hairstyle and mustache do not resemble young Picasso’s.
The man is also believed to be the Spanish artist Ricard Canals, whose resemblance is very similar to the mysterious man in the painting. I am led to agree with this theory, though it has not been confirmed since, in Picasso’s painting, his hair is split on the wrong side. Canals was a close friend of Picasso’s and often his rival, leading me to believe that their complex friendship may have led to Picasso’s discarding of the portrait.
Research continues and art historians are still looking for leads to the key that can unlock the mystery of The Hidden Painting.