Picasso's “Les Deux Saltimbanques”

By David Chandler, Chief Conservator of Works of Art on Paper

(Above) “Les deux Saltimbanques” by Pablo Picasso as it arrived to The Center for treatment

This small print by Pablo Picasso was executed in 1905. Both figures are partially surrounded by ghostly images beautifully created with dry point; on the left, there is the hint of a cape along with evidence of changes in the figure’s stance and placement on the plate. The figure on the right seems to have a shadow behind the head and upper arm. The two acrobats in conversation give the viewer the opportunity to think about their exchange.

A young officer with a very good eye brought the print back from Europe following the Second World War in the late 1940’s. He took great care to have the print matted and framed once he returned home. These many years of contact with non-archival framing materials, which have aged poorly, darkened and disfigured the print. However, since the print was executed on fine German printing paper, the severe darkening and degradation caused by the acidic mat did not totally compromise the work.

(Above) Detail of darkening and degradation

The significant cotton content of the paper made it possible to employ a conservation treatment that reduced the staining in a safe way for this important work. Cotton containing papers, in this case manufactured for printmakers, are inherently strong and generally respond favorably to conservation treatments.

The before treatment images clearly show the darkening around the image (mat burn), on the back of the sheet, and on the sheet edges. These stains reduced 
significantly when exposed to buffered (alkaline) water and stabilized hydrogen peroxide. Application of both in combination with our light-bleaching bank, which like the sun, chases many stains into the moistened cotton blotter below. These stain reduction techniques are some of the best for fine prints like the Picasso, and are often used in museum conservation studios as well.

(Above) Reverse showing significant mat burn

 Once the staining was reduced to a satisfactory point, the print was rinsed in filtered water and finally dried between cotton blotters. The blotters gently pulled the moisture away from the print and helped to flatten it in a uniform way.

Brain Kapernekas, who preformed the pre-treatment research also carried out this treatment. This is a beautiful treatment and Brian paid close attention to the color of the paper throughout his work, making certain the tonality was still slightly warm at the treatment’s conclusion.

(Above) Post treatment

(Above) Before and after treatment showing the reduction in mat burn.