In honor of Pablo Picasso’s birthday today, Oct. 25, we examine the open secret of one of his most celebrated paintings, which also happens to be one of our personal favorites. Picasso was only 22 in 1904 when he is believed to have painted this revealing portrait of a woman ironing, her skeletal frame bent with overwork and poverty. Picasso himself was not flush with money at the time, living in Paris and often reusing canvases, a practice he continued throughout his career. For years, art experts have been aware of an upside-down shadow painting beneath the surface of “Woman Painting” but without more sophisticated technology, they were unable to see the image clearly enough to identify it.
This September, Carol Stringari, chief conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, finished the painstaking yearlong process of cleaning it for the museum’s exhibition “Picasso Black and White,” which opened this month, and revealed a clearer portrait of the hidden painting than anyone had seen yet. Slowly, with the help of infrared technology, a portrait of a man with hair parted in the middle and a fashionable red cravat around his neck, emerged. He is standing in front of what seems to be an easel. The debate over the identity of the man rages on, with many experts leaning towards one of two artist-friends of Picasso’s; Richard Canals or Mateu Fernández de Soto. In a cool interactive feature in the New York Times, you can erase the surface of the painting yourself and compare the revealed portrait against several likely suspects.