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Transitions in an artist’s style, technique and subject matter are often an enduring source of inquiry and fascination. To those familiar with Pablo Picasso’s life, 1901 is well known as one such period of transition. This was the year his “Blue Period” began, and remains a time of great interest to art historians and enthusiasts alike. Technical analysis of paintings made during this period are one approach to finding clues into as-yet understood aspects of Picasso’s experience and process. The recent discovery of a buried portrait below one of his first blue period paintings, “The Blue Room,” (The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St NW, Washington DC) offers an example of two paintings, each by Picasso, that represent snapshots of this transition. The buried portrait, revealed most vividly by infrared imaging, is representative of Picasso’s work before the blue period began, whereas “The Blue Room” is among the earliest examples of his blue period work.

In October 2012, “The Blue Room” was brought to CHESS to obtain complementary information — x-ray fluorescence (XRF) maps to obtain the distributions of individual elements used in pigments in the upper and lower layers — to what prior analyses had already provided. Obtaining these data at CHESS entailed a multi-institution, international collaboration — including the Phillips Collection, the University of Delaware, Cornell’s Johnson Museum as well as CHESS. The collaboration also included scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), who brought and setup a state-of-the-art detector, known as the Maia detector, designed from scratch for fast XRF mapping.

On March 22nd, the results of these measurements, as well as the many other analyses brought to bear over several years of study on “The Blue Room,” were published in the Open Access journal Heritage Science, in a comprehensive manuscript, “Reflectance imaging spectroscopy and synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence mapping used in a technical study of The Blue Room by Pablo Picasso.” ( The manuscript describes how different data sets are used to identify the palette used for both images, and establish the distribution of that palette throughout the painting, as well as identify an unusual, red and yellow flower located on the shirt of the subject in the buried portrait. This last, tantalizing detail may eventually help identify the sitter for the buried portrait.



Submitted by: Arthur Woll, CHESS, Cornell University