Hidden dog discovered in early Picasso masterpiece

Modern imaging technology has revealed a small dog, hidden behind a thin layer of paint, at the bottom of an early painting by Pablo Picasso, leaving viewers to wonder, why did the dog have to go.

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Using a process called “X-ray fluorescence imaging spectroscopy,” researchers were able to reveal the presence of the dog in “Le Moulin de la Galette,” painted by Picasso during his stay in Paris when the artist was just 19 years old.

“Looking at this area where you can see other colors peeking through and you can see texture that doesn’t relate to the final composition, I had a very strong feeling that there was something under there,” said Julie Barten, senior painting conservator at the Guggenheim Museum.

Barten had been looking at the work for years, both under a microscope and using X-ray technology, and suspected something was there, painted over. But it wasn’t until using a technology called X-ray fluorescence imaging spectroscopy, provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., that the hidden object was revealed.

“What we’re seeing here is a false color image which visualizes the iron, mercury and zinc components in the pigments,” Barten said. “So it is important to point out that it’s not a snapshot. It is a visualization.”

Only by removing the top layer of paint could a totally accurate image of the dog be revealed, not something that would be possible without damaging the painting and running afoul of the artist’s intentions.

Barten said the dog is possibly a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a popular breed in Paris at the time.

“Le Moulin de la Galette” depicts the popular dance hall that was frequented and painted by other famous artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Megan Fontanella, Guggenheim’s Modern Art curator, said she was “surprised” when she first saw the image of the dog in “Le Moulin de la Galette.”

“It completely changes how one would have encountered this picture. You would have seen this really quite adorable dog in the foreground, looking almost directly at the visitor with this wonderful red bow,” said Fontanella.

“One can only speculate why Picasso would have concealed this. But certainly now my eye is drawn to all these wonderful figures in the composition. So no longer is the dog there to kind of monopolize our view,” she added.

Barten said Picasso was a great editor of his own work, often transforming elements within a work into new forms.

“What’s interesting is that he, in obscuring it, it was just a few hasty brush strokes and so he did kind of leave a ghostly presence of the dog there, which was so often his practice later in life,” said Barten.

The painting, considered one of Picasso’s early masterpieces, has been in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York for decades. It is now the centerpiece of an exhibition called “Young Picasso in Paris,” which incorporates paintings, drawings and photographs to tell the story of Picasso’s first few years in Paris starting in 1900.

The exhibition is among many Picasso exhibitions on display around the world in 2023 that are part of The Picasso Celebration 1973-2023, marking the 50th year since the artist’s death in 1973.

Aside from the scanning that revealed the dog, Barten also gave the painting a full restoration to prepare it for the exhibition, brightening colors and stripping off old yellowing varnish, bringing the work closer to how it looked when Picasso put down his brush after completing the work in 1900.