Les Demoiselles: Conserving a Modern Masterpiece MoMA.org: The Museum of Modern Art Les Demoiselles: Conserving a Modern Masterpiece
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History of the Painting
Working Process
Executing the Large Canvas

After completing many preparatory sketches, it appears that Picasso laid the composition in with oil paint rather than first transferring his sketches to the canvas in pencil, as there is no evidence of underdrawing in pencil or charcoal. In some Impasto Techniqueplaces Picasso began by outlining areas in dark paint, eventually filling in forms with parallel strokes of a loaded brush. This technique is evident in the foreheads of the two central women (posed with their arms above their heads), where the paint has formed tiny peaks of impasto at the end of the brushstrokes [see: Impasto Technique]. Picasso laid in the design quite assuredly, confident in the overall composition before he began work on the large canvas. Examination of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon under normal and transmitted lighting conditions reveals numerous areas where Picasso left the priming layer visible, thus providing transparency and luminosity to these Ground in Reservepassages [see: Ground in Reserve]. Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse also employed this technique of leaving the ground in reserve, a deliberate break from traditional painting practice. In most cases, the ground is visible at the intersection of the faceted planes or around forms, contrasting with areas where the image has been built up with several applications of paint. This contrast is most apparent in the heads of the figures that were reworked in the second painting campaign of summer 1907.

In his description of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso scholar Pierre Daix remarked, "the vehement relief of the brushstrokes Second Campaignin the painting of the hair and of the texture of the paint—so thick that the artist could dig into it with the stem of his brush—introduces violence into the internal texture of the painting. And this is precisely the workmanship that characterizes the masklike faces of the girls on the right." (Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, p. 75) [see: Impasto Technique]. The slashing paint application, especially evident where the figures' heads have been reworked, is also present in other paintings of this period, including Vase of Flowers (1908). Cadmium Yellow UnderpaintIt is noteworthy that the application of blue outlines in the leg of the figure pulling back the curtain at left and the reworked contours of the crouching figure were part of the second campaign, since they were obviously added well after underlying paint was dry [see: Second Campaign]. In the first campaign, Picasso's palette range of flesh pinks and blues was in keeping with his work from the Rose and Blue periods. In contrast, while completing the canvas in the summer of 1907, he reworked the head and torso of the upper-right figure with slashing strokes of green and red paint. Moreover, a close examination of the face of the crouching figure at right indicates that a layer of bright cadmium yellow paint was applied just underneath [see: Cadmium Yellow Underpaint], demonstrating that Picasso was experimenting with a more radical shift in color as well as imagery.

Pictured at top:
Foot of left curtain-pulling figure

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