PRINT May 1973

Love and Death in Picasso’s Early Work

THE DISCUSSION OF PICASSO’S early work has thus far been dominated by attention to stylistic phenomena. The decade of intense activity from about 1900 to 1910 is generally divided into periods whose names alone—Toulouse-Lautrec, Blue, Rose, Negro, Early Cubist—are evidence of a preoccupation with stylistic issues. This is hardly surprising, given the remarkable variety of European and exotic, of older and contemporary styles that he assimilated in those years, the extraordinary pace of his own stylistic development from one period to the next, and above all the emergence of Cubism as a radically new style whose evolution can be followed year by year. But as a result, much less attention has been paid to iconographic phenomena and especially to those themes and motives that recur throughout Picasso’s early work despite its frequent changes in style.1 This essay is an attempt to trace the history and interpret the meaning of two such themes, those of love and death, to which he was already able to give intensely personal expression, though largely in a conventional language at first, ranging from realistic genre to religious allegory.

Before the fall of 1901, when the Blue Period began, Picasso’s subject matter was predominantly secular, if not worldly. Except for a few still lifes and a larger number of portraits, it consisted of urban genre scenes that tended to concentrate on the extremes of contemporary society. They ranged from views of the poorest quarters with haggard mothers and proletarian couples to scenes of fashionable life at the Auteuil races and in theaters and private dining rooms. But the most striking images were of the lurid world of nocturnal entertainment and pleasure—the café, the cabaret, the dance hall, and the seductive women who performed or could be found there. The erotic element, already apparent in these works, became explicit in many others showing streetwalkers, habitués of bars, and richly dressed prostitutes who have posed for their portraits. Obviously fascinated, the young artist painted them in brilliant colors, dwelling on their cold beauty and gleaming jewels, their strangely compelling power.

In contrast to this worldly tendency, there was in Picasso’s work from the beginning a religious tendency, inspired both by the persistent strain of mysticism in Spanish art and life and by the revival of sacred themes in later 19th-century European art generally. Some of his earliest drawings were of The Last Supper, Christ with His Disciples, and similar subjects; and in larger, carefully executed paintings he represented The Nativity and scenes of religious ceremony like The Altar Boy (Z.1.2) and The First Communion (Z.21.49). About 1902, after steeping himself in profane themes, he drew a crucified Christ of Romanesque severity (Z.6.390) and a fantastic vision of The Crucifixion itself (Z.22.6). Moreover, the impoverished mothers in vaguely medieval dress who appear so often in the Blue Period are, as has often been observed, secularized Madonnas in the tradition of Maurice Denis. And both in costume and in composition the several versions of The Two Sisters recall Gothic sculptural groups of The Visitation as well as the reliefs on Greek grave steles.

The two tendencies were not as isolated as this discussion implies. In the major allegorical pictures of the Blue Period they were equally potent sources of inspiration, as we shall see. And in two murals; no longer extant but described by Sabartès, they were brought together violently. In one of them, painted in 1903 in Sabartès’ apartment, Picasso juxtaposed the morbid and the erotic in a particularly provocative manner; it showed “a half-naked Moor hanging from a tree” while on the ground “a young couple, totally naked, delivered themselves . . . to the passionate game of love.”2 In the other, painted two years earlier in a Montmartre café: “He drew a few female nudes in one stroke. Then, in a blank area he had purposely left, he drew a hermit. As soon as one of us shouted: ‘Temptation of St. Anthony,’ he stopped.”3 This subject was indeed a popular one, but Picasso’s choice of it is revealing; with the other mural it sums up that attraction to themes of love and death, of sensuality and asceticism, which inspired much of his early work and later found expression in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and certain Early Cubist compositions, including a variation on The Temptation itself. Its most important statements were, however, in the Blue Period pictures commemorating the death of his friend Casagemas.

Carlos Casagemas, a painter and writer who belonged to the same circle in Barcelona, was one of the young Picasso’s closest friends. His tall figure and mournful yet distinguished features appear often in the latter’s drawings from about 1897 on, sometimes juxtaposed with his own. In 1900 they shared a studio whose walls they decorated with murals; and in the fall of that year they made their first trip to Paris together and shared another studio. Their ambitious plans were, however, soon frustrated by a tragic series of events, about which Xavier de Salas has written the most succinctly:

In Paris, Casagemas and this group of Spanish painters happened to know a French girl. Casagemas fell in love with her, and when he discovered that he was impotent he fell into a great depression and tried to commit suicide. Trying to cheer him up, Picasso left Paris with Casagemas and went to Barcelona and then to Malaga. Nothing availed, and leaving Picasso with his family in Barcelona, Casagemas went back to Paris. There he found this French girl in a café, tried to shoot her, and committed suicide. The suicide has been fully recorded through the recollections of Manolo Hughet [Hugué], the sculptor.4

Like de Salas, Manolo seems deliberately to avoid naming the girl, referring merely to a “seamstress from Montmartre.”5 Only in the last ten years—more than 50 years after Casagemas’ death—have her identity and her role, both in that event and in Picasso’s interpretation of it, gradually become clear. Significantly, it was he who first identified her as Germaine Pichot, the wife of his now deceased colleague Ramon Pichot, in remarks reported by John Richardson and Francoise Gilot.6 Yet the official police record of the suicide, discovered by Pierre Daix, thanks to another of Picasso’s remarks, seems to confuse her identity once again by naming a “Miss Florentin, née Gargallo, Laure, 20 years old, who was not his [Casagemas’] mistress.”7 That Laure Florentin, a relative of the sculptor Gargallo, was later known as Germaine Pichot, her marriage to Florentin having been brief, was clearly established only recently by Palau I Fabre.8 Why all this is important we shall see presently.

Living in Madrid, where he had gone after leaving Casagemas, Picasso learned of the latter’s death from friends, but did not respond to it artistically until he returned to Paris in the spring of 1901. Once there however, inhabiting the very studio they had shared and hearing about the suicide from Manolo, on whom it had made a profound impression, he could hardly help becoming obsessed by it himself. He even returned to the scene of the crime and recorded its appearance in a picture that he has recently identified as “the café on the Boulevard de Clichy where Casagemas committed suicide.”9 He then began a series of posthumous portraits and commemorative compositions, based on memory and perhaps on his earlier sketches of the deceased, which culminated in the ambitious Burial of Casagemas. In the first of them, a rapid oil sketch on cardboard (Z.21.177), the bullet wound appears as a prominent dark spot on the right temple, the point specified in the police report and in Manolo’s memoir. In two more finished pictures, executed at the same time or shortly after, he shows Casagemas lying in his coffin, his eyes closed, his face gaunt and mournful even in death; but one is painted in the brilliant colors he employed in the spring and summer of 1901, the other in the more subdued tones, already dominated by blue, that announced the beginning of the Blue Period in the autumn (Z.21.179).

In the former there is a large candle burning beside the coffin—the first of many such candles in Picasso’s art, some of them standing for the light of truth, as in the Minotauromachy etching and certain Guernica studies (Z.9.8,10), others signifying mortality, as in the still lifes of 1939 with a bull’s head, a candle, and a palette (Z.9.239-40). But the manner in which the candle beside Casagemas is painted, the heavy strokes surrounding it like a halo, resembles above all that in which van Gogh depicts candles and lamps, which he too charges with symbolic significance.10 By the spring of 1901 Picasso would have seen such works in exhibitions and known the main events of his tragic life, which, like that of Casagemas, ended in a suicide.

As he became absorbed by the meaning rather than the stark fact of his friend’s death, Picasso turned from posthumous portraits to allegorical compositions. In The Mourners, the first surviving example of this type, the group of grieving figures surrounding the coffin in the foreground, and even the arch in the background, recall older pictures of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. But the number of mourners—17 men, women, and children—is much larger than in traditional Lamentation scenes and suggests instead a secular occasion involving a whole community, as in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. This effect is reinforced by the prominently placed mother and child—a motive we shall encounter again, in an equally conspicuous position at the right side, in The Burial of Casagemas and in La Vie. The two tendencies, religious and secular, are also evident in the most important of the preparatory studies for The Mourners; for “one is quite traditional in composition and might be an Entombment of Christ, while the other shows a female nude floating mysteriously over the body of the dead man, stretched out with dramatic stiffness on the ground.”11 This drawing does not seem quite so mysterious however when we recall the cause of Casagemas’ suicide. He is, in fact, shown again in a rigid posture with a floating female nude, this time clinging to him as he ascends to heaven, in the final painting of this series, the monumental Burial of Casagemas.

The major work of the Blue Period, it dominated Picasso’s studio both physically and symbolically, like a grim reminder of the fate of artists. Inevitably, its subject and general design, as well as its extremely tall figures and dramatically accented clouds hovering close to earth, are reminiscent of El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which Picasso already admired at this time and later took as the subject of a fantasy he wrote. He clearly had some such work of religious inspiration in mind, just as he recalled an old tradition of religious numerology in grouping his figures by threes or multiples of three. The center of the earthly zone, the dead man’s body wrapped in a white shroud, is surrounded by nine mourners, and the center of the heavenly zone, his soul ascending on a white horse, is flanked by nine women and children. Moreover, the latter are partly divided into groups of three: below Casagemas’ soul at the left, three nudes who are identified as prostitutes by their colorful stockings and sensual poses; and below it at the right, a mother and two children who are likened to holy figures by their vaguely medieval costume. And these in turn form the bases of a roughly triangular pattern whose apex is another group of three—the ascending soul, the horse it rides, and the woman clinging to it—which becomes the focus of the entire composition.

The allegory thus centers on a contrast between two traditional types of love, sacred and profane, types Picasso often depicted separately in pictures of Madonna-like mothers and prostitutes. In The Two Sisters, a work of the following year, he juxtaposes the two types again, in a style that mediates again between realism and quasi-religious symbolism. For the two women, confronting each other with a formal severity we have already linked with Greek and Gothic sculpture, are in Picasso’s words “a whore of St. Lazare and a nun,” whom he had observed at the St. Lazare hospital for venereal diseases.12 They cannot be simply that, since the so-called nun holds an infant at her breast, but what is significant is that he chose to speak of them in such terms. Evidently the attitude he expressed thereby was deeply ingrained; many years later he remarked to Francoise Gilot, “For me, there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats.”13 And in the Girl Before a Mirror of 1932 (Z.7.379), a composition whose resemblance to the mirrorlike Two Sisters is indeed striking, he showed a similar confrontation between the innocent and ominous sides of love.

In The Burial of Casagemas the conception of the rider himself seems to fuse two traditional but contradictory images of Christ, that of the triumphant god whose ascent on a white charger is foretold in Apocalypse, Chapter 19, and that of the suffering mortal with arms outstretched on the cross. The latter allusion would not be surprising, since Picasso has throughout his career chosen The Crucifixion as a means of expressing his own despair or loss. Particularly relevant here are the drawing inspired by the death of his mistress Eva in 1915 and the Crucifixion theme in The Three Dancers (Z.5.246), motivated by the death of Ramon Pichot in 1925.14 But the rigidity of Casagemas’ outstretched arms may have a sexual as well as a religious significance. The woman clinging to him, attempting to embrace him, seems to reinforce this expression of involuntary resistance. De Salas, we have seen, states explicitly that the discovery of his impotence was the cause of Casagemas’ suicide; and Palau I Fabre adds that this was confirmed by an autopsy. Picasso, too, describes the effects of such a condition in a drawing made a year or two later (Z.1.145), in which Casagemas is entirely nude, his darkened features convey disillusionment, and his hands are locked together in anguish or helplessness.

In La Vie, another major work of the Blue Period, painted more than two years after The Burial of Casagemas, Picasso treated once again in allegorical form its themes of love and death and introduced his dead friend as the central figure. In choosing to do so, he may have been inspired by precisely the kind of circumstance that had inspired his earlier posthumous portraits; when he began La Vie in the spring of 1903 he was living in the Barcelona studio he had shared with Casagemas, a studio filled not only with memories but with the murals they had painted on its walls. The composition is of course much more compact, and the setting, apparently an artist’s studio with two of his canvases in the background, is more intimate and restricted. But the nudity of Casagemas and the oddly shaped slip he wears still call attention to the problematic nature of his sexuality, and he is still shown between women who, whatever their specific meanings, suggest a contrast between two types of love. Only their attitudes have changed, in accordance with the greater pessimism of the image as a whole: the nude woman now leans against him in a passive, dejected mood; the mother confronts him with a stern, unyielding glance; and he himself reluctantly accepts the presence of one and points ambiguously toward the other. He is like a modern Hercules at the Crossroads, obliged to choose between women symbolic of a “higher” and a “lower” life; in this he resembles the protagonist of Max Klinger’s etching The Artist, also of 1903, who turns uneasily from the beautiful woman at one side to face the older woman advancing toward him reproachfully at the other.15 Or Picasso’s figure is like Adam standing before the Tree of Life, flanked by Eve and Mary; in the old engravings he may have seen, Eve is sometimes shown nude and Mary fully clothed, holding an infant like the one in La Vie.16

Adam and Eve after the expulsion may in fact be the subject of the upper painting in the background of La Vie. The anguished couple, clinging to each other in a naked, destitute condition, would thus represent a later stage in the lives of the disillusioned lovers standing beside them—a reflection of their pessimistic thoughts. The lower painting, of a naked woman alone, seated with her legs drawn up and her head buried between her knees, is similar in content; but as is evident beneath the pentimenti, it initially showed a reclining nude with a huge black bird perched on her knee. The black bird is, of course, a familiar omen of evil or misfortune and figures as such in two other works of the Blue Period: overtly in a drawing of a vulture tearing at the skull of a helpless man (Z.1.149), whose posture repeats that of the anguished Casagemas in the drawing discussed earlier; more allusively in the well-known gouache of a diabolical woman stroking and kissing a crow (Z.1.240). Thus the lower painting in La Vie may have referred to the terrors of a guilty, sensual love, as the upper one referred to its desperate consequences.

Not only from its pentimenti, but from the four preliminary studies now known,17 it is evident that Picasso’s conception of La Vie changed considerably as he worked on it. In the first two sketches, whose setting is more explicitly an artist’s studio with one picture on an easel, the figure at the right is a tall, gaunt, bearded man resembling a Blue Period beggar or madman. But there are signs—in the third sketch and in a drawing of Picasso himself, nude and in exactly the same pose (Z.22.117)—that this figure was then intended to be the artist. And this becomes more significant when we discover, in the third and fourth sketches, that the other male figure is likewise an image of Picasso, who obviously wavered about his role as observer or protagonist in the allegory. In the painting he is of course neither; but the substitution of Casagemas’ features for his own merely expresses in another form that sense of himself as having been thrust by women into an untenable and ultimately tragic position with which he evidently began. It reminds us of his later comment on Charlie Chaplin, another “artist” with whom he easily identified himself: “He’s a man who, like me, has suffered a great deal at the hands of women.”18 And it explains why, in posing for the portrait painted by his friend Sebastian Junyent early in 1904, he chose to stand before the central portion of La Vie, so that he would be framed by the two women and the nude one would appear to look, with disillusioned eyes, directly at him.

As the mood and tonality of Picasso’s art began to brighten in the fall of 1904 a new range of subjects began to appear in it. The tragic and pessimistic images of the earlier phase, typically Spanish in their mingling of the morbid and the erotic, were gradually replaced by the pathetic and subtly ironic images of the later phase, more characteristically French in their fusion of realism and poetic mood. The suicidal artists, impoverished mothers, and blind beggars were replaced by circus entertainers, wandering acrobats, and their families, figures who, although equally alienated from society and often equally destitute, are no longer victims but agents of their own fate. Set apart from normal life both by their roles as performers and by their costumes, which they wear in all circumstances like special insignia, the Harlequins, saltimbanques, and jesters who now dominated Picasso’s imagery possess a stoic pride and exalted sense of self not given to their predecessors in the Blue Period.

Yet there is a greater connection between, say, the later jesters and the earlier idiots than is generally recognized, and one which in turn hints at other continuities between the Blue and Rose Periods. The sympathy with madmen as symbols of an absolute alienation, both social and psychological, can be traced directly from one period to the other. Moreover, many of the later pictures of a brooding acrobat’s or Harlequin’s family have thematic precedents in such earlier ones as The Seizure (Z.22.121), a drawing of a grim family facing eviction, and The Tragedy (Z.1.208) and Figures by the Sea (Z.1.197), paintings of a similar group now homeless and cast adrift. In some instances the thematic parallel is reinforced by a formal one, the two boys in Street Urchins (Z.1.185) so closely resembling those in Two Acrobats with a Dog (Z.1.300) that only the changes in dress and of course in coloring identify the latter as a work of the Rose Period. And one scene of an altogether different character, the mysterious and moving Death of Harlequin, is related both thematically and compositionally to the pictures of 1901 commemorating the death of Casagemas.

It is, in fact, only in terms of such a relationship that The Death of Harlequin can be fully understood. Alien to the boisterous spirit of the Corn-media dell’Arte, this solemn, almost mystical subject rarely occurs in the theatrical scenarios or works of art inspired by them, though the death of Punchinello or Pierrot is occasionally shown. In its grave mood it is more like The Mourners and The Burial of Casagemas or the religious pictures from which they in turn derive. Lying outstretched as his former companions bend over him, his body ascetically attenuated, his hands joined as if in prayer, the dead Harlequin recalls both the recumbent effigies on Gothic tombs and the Christ figure in Renaissance Entombments and Lamentations. But if Picasso’s use of such models in the earlier works was based on a fairly obvious identification of his dead friend with Christ, the connection here is more obscure and suggests instead some association of himself with the Harlequin as Christ. In this he had a precedent in Beardsley’s drawing The Death of Pierrot, published in 1896, which shows four of the dying clown’s colleagues entering his room and, more explicitly than Picasso’s image, expresses what was for its fatally ill creator a deeply personal sentiment.19

That the Harlequin type often served as an alter ego for Picasso, who in two pictures of the Rose Period gave this figure his own features, has long been recognized. It is the first of those fictional types in which he projects the feelings of alienation and fraternity, jealousy and love, that haunt his imagination. In fact, two of these types, the Harlequin and the Minotaur, meet their end simultaneously in a drawing of 1936 (Z.8.287) that closes the cycle of Minotaur subjects corresponding in that decade to the circus subjects of c. 1905. Here the dying Minotaur, once again the victim of a woman who spurs on his aggressor, wears a Harlequin’s costume as if to reinforce the pathos of his condition. Thus The Death of Harlequin, evidently the last of the circus subjects in the Rose Period a watercolor study (Z.22.337) is dated 1906—may well mark the end of a phase in Picasso’s personal development, exactly like the dying Minotaur 30 years later.

Still more closely linked to the Casagemas pictures is the Harlequin in a Café, more commonly known asAt the Lapin Agile. On one level an image of Harlequin and Columbine as sad bohemians, like the bored and lonely creatures in the so-called Two Saltimbanques of 1901 (Z.1.92), it is on another level an image of Picasso and Germaine Pichot, as he himself was the first to point out.20 Thus he imagines himself in a milieu of bohemian gaiety, but in the company of a woman associated with the earlier tragedy. That would explain his total estrangement from her and his troubled expression, whose somberness is enhanced by the use of blue and tan tones in contrast to the brilliant red, yellow, and green tones of their costumes. This typically modern sense of alienation is already found in the café and dance hall pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec;21 but nowhere among the sordid or pathetic habitués of his world, and rarely even among the introspective acrobats and clowns of Picasso’s, is this suffering as intimately related to the artist himself or as enigmatic as it is here. For its cause is located not in the present, but in his brooding on the meaning of an event that had occurred four years earlier.

Significantly, it was Picasso himself who later identified Germaine Pichot as the woman whom Casagemas had loved, both in his remark to Richardson and in a longer, more explicit statement recorded by Françoise Gilot. After taking her to visit “a little old lady, toothless and sick, lying in bed” in a small house in Montmartre, he explained his didactic purpose:

I want you to learn about life. . . . That woman’s name is Germaine Pichot. She’s old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now. But when she was young she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide. . . . Now look at her.22

Thus, having forgotten or chosen to forget about Casagemas’ impotence, Picasso came to think of Germaine as the sole cause of his death. She had become associated in his imagination with the fin-de-siècle type of the fatal woman. Yet she seems to have contributed to this association herself, not least in the frequency with which she changed husbands and lovers. Within months of Casagemas’ suicide she was evidently married to Pichot, but Gertrude Stein makes it clear that this marriage inhibited her no more than her previous one to Florentin.23 Her vivid, sensual features are seen in the Woman with a Shawl (Z.21.410), which Picasso has recently identified as a likeness of her, and in other works of the Blue Period. Foremost among them may well be La Vie itself, for the face of the younger woman is apparently an idealized portrait of her and hence Picasso’s earliest statement of her part in his friend’s death.

The notion of the clown or acrobat as a symbol of human suffering, and of the artist’s special form of suffering, was of course familiar well before the Rose Period; its origin is in Romantic art and literature. What is striking in Picasso’s imagery is his tendency to locate it not only in the performer’s alienation from society, but in that more tragic estrangement he feels at times from the woman who shares his life. In The Harlequin’s Family, for example, the tall, slender Harlequin, a figure of almost feminine proportions holding an infant on his shoulder, looks on with mingled admiration and resentment while Columbine, who is completely nude, admires her cold beauty in a mirror. In a second version of this composition, a drypoint called The Mother’s Toilet, the veil of lyrical pink and blue color is lifted, and the underlying tension is revealed in sharply bitten lines. Harlequin, his features more gaunt and bitter, observes while Columbine fingers her long, flowing tresses and smiles voluptuously at her reflection. Reversed, as it was when drawn on the plate, this confrontation repeats the one in La Vie between a sternly disapproving figure with a child at the right and a sensually nude figure at the left.

Nowhere in the Rose Period does Picasso express these feelings more poignantly than in the so-called Wedding of Pierrette. Although bestowed by a dealer many years later,24 the title is appropriate; for if the lady is not necessarily Pierrette (Columbine) and not necessarily marrying the smug gentleman beside her, but simply observing Harlequin’s performance, he does blow her a farewell kiss and her haughty attitude does distance her from him, implying the kind of separation her marriage would require. If this is indeed the subject, it is entirely Picasso’s invention, having occurred neither in the Commedia dell’Arte nor in the art it inspired. Nor is the role he gives to Harlequin his traditional one; as Apollinaire noted a few years later, he is as a lover “brave, crafty, graceful, ingenious, and without scruples.”25 Rather it is the role of Pierrot, as it became established on the Romantic stage and in Symbolist literature. Or it is the role of the clown who partly absorbed the Pierrot type, the circus clown of whom Gomez de la Serna, later a friend of Picasso, was to write, “They have very sad expressions, because women do not accept them as lovers,”26 and the poetic clown whom Picasso was to identify with Charlie Chaplin.

It is not surprising, given the symbolic nature of their roles, that the protagonists of The Wedding of Pierrette should appear in other costumes and situations in other works of the Rose Period. In the drypoint Salomé, an image of the fatal woman par excellence, all the major figures are directly descended from those in the wedding picture. The rich man has become Herod and wears an emperor’s rather than a modern gentleman’s hat, yet has the same stout proportions, coarse features, and smug expression. The lady has become Herodias and like the other figures is entirely nude, yet maintains the same aloofness and plays in the same affected manner with her hair. The young girl, apparently a dancer even in The Wedding of Pierrette, has become Salomé and dances provocatively before Herod, yet is still seen from behind as in that picture. And Harlequin has become, at least by implication, the Baptist, whose severed head is the ultimate emblem of the ascetic’s defeat at the hands of a woman.

More important, the same symbolic types are found in the Family of Saltimbanques, the major work of the Rose Period, and as a result they clarify its enigmatic meaning. Like The Wedding of Pierrette, it is a composition built on a continuous curve, unwinding from left to right on the surface and in depth and consisting of six figures. Again the movement begins with a young girl seen from behind, more clearly identified now as a dancer by her costume and stance and her evident derivation from Degas’ ballet pictures.27 Again there is a tall Harlequin, here explicitly bearing Picasso’s features, who closes the composition at one side, though it is the opposite one. Again he is contrasted with a shorter, much stouter man with a distinctive hat and an air of authority, the saltimbanque whose features recall not only the rich man’s and Herod’s but those of Apollinaire.28 Again there are two lesser figures, perhaps brothers, who look out with sad, deeply shaded eyes. And again the compositional movement ends with an isolated figure who is its psychological focus, though now it is not Harlequin but Columbine. Like the stout saltimbanque and no one else in the group, she wears an unusual hat; thus her affinities in this family constellation are with him as well as with the Harlequin, whose age and traditional role are closer to hers; and this is confirmed by her close resemblance to the lady in The Wedding of Pierrette. It is evident then that the poignant mood reflects not only the artist’s alienation from society, but something of that tension in his relation to women which appears more overtly in other pictures of the Rose Period.

Given his role in those works and the “Hamletism” of the times, it was almost inevitable that Picasso would choose as his ultimate circus role that of the Harlequin who is also Hamlet, and this is what he did in one of the sketches in the so-called Planche de Dessins, a drypoint on which he and Max Jacob collaborated. Seen in profile, and with the classical yet sullen features of the Harlequin in the Family of Saltimbanques, he holds up a skull toward the faintly smiling face of his mistress Fernande Olivier, seen in profile facing him. Thus he is both the melancholy Hamlet who laments the death of Yorrick—the king’s jester, an entertainer like Harlequin—and the ironic Hamlet who would send Ophelia to a nunnery; both the moralist who reflects on the vanity of all human affairs and the ascetic who rejects all love as sensual and corrupting. The whole vignette may, in fact, have been conceived as a kind of vanitas lesson for Fernande, exactly like the one Picasso later provided for Francoise Gilot. After he had taken her to visit Germaine Pichot, once the cause of Casagemas’ death and now approaching death herself, Francoise concluded: “I think Pablo had the idea that he was showing me something new and revealing by bringing me to see that woman, a little like showing someone a skull to encourage him to meditate on the vanity of human existence.”29 But he probably would not have drawn that vignette without the vogue of Hamlet among the Symbolist poets; in fact the opening scene of Pierrot Poète, by Gauguin’s friend Aurier, shows Harlequin in a cemetery “in the pose of Hamlet,” contemplating a skull and quoting the famous soliloquy as he waits for Columbine.30

Reacting against the unrelenting pessimism and enigmatic symbolism of the Blue and Rose Periods, Picasso searched in 1906 for a greater objectivity based on classical and archaic Greek art and then on Iberian art. Apart from a few portraits and still lifes, his subjects now were single or paired figures, generally nude and always impassive, seen against a neutral background. The most important examples of this style, painted in the primitive milieu of Gosol in the summer, are suffused with a new tonality, neither spiritual like blue nor sentimental like rose, but warm, luminous, and natural, like the red ochre earth and Gosol itself. As in the transition from the Blue to the Rose Period, however, there are many signs of continuity in theme or conception, indicating the persistence of older attitudes. Thus The Two Brothers (Z.1.304) are direct descendants of the Two Acrobats with a Dog (Z.1.300); the older boy’s sensitive features and sullen expression are identical in the two pictures, and another version of the later one contains a still life with a saltimbanque’s drum (Z.6.720). Even La Toilette, a painting often singled out as an example of Picasso’s Neoclassicism, is closely related to the earlier images of a clothed Harlequin observing a nude Columbine at her toilet, as well as to the image of a heavily draped woman confronting a sensually nude one in La Vie. Moreover, the role of the draped figure in La Vie is like that of the woman, now nude herself, who draws open a curtain as if to reveal the other women in the brothel picture entitled Three Nudes (Z.1.349) and the related Nude in Profile (Z.1.350), both painted after Picasso returned from Gosol in the fall. And, of course, it is the role of the intruding figure in the great picture to which these others lead, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Of the first studies for the Demoiselles, consolidated in a drawing of early 1907, Picasso himself later explained that the figure at the left, opening a curtain to disclose a sailor surrounded by nude women, flowers, and food, is a student holding a skull. In this drawing it is more likely a book, but in others published recently it is clearly a skull, sometimes held with a book.31 Initially then the picture was conceived as a contrast between ascetic rejection and sensual indulgence, in the spirit of La Vie and the drypoint sketch of himself as Harlequin-Hamlet showing a skull to his mistress. That the student in some of the recently published studies is recognizably a self-portrait, despite his tall stature, shows to what extent he is descended from the Harlequin in the drypoint, as well as from the withdrawn and passive Harlequin who bears his features again in the Family of Saltimbanques and At the Lapin Agile. Behind all these works however lies the mural of 1901 representing The Temptation of St. Anthony, the classic statement of the melancholy ascetic’s rejection of erotic love. This would explain why it was appropriate for Picasso to base the composition of the Demoiselles and even the poses of certain figures on those of Cézanne’s Temptation and the bather pictures derived from it.32 In the final version of course the sailor and student are eliminated, and the resultant image of five monumental nudes is inexplicable in narrative or allegorical terms. But in their alternately provocative and grotesque appearances something of the moral conflict and sexual tension of the initial conception remains, linking even this version with the Blue and Rose Period works discussed previously.

Memento mori, hinted at in the Demoiselles, is more explicitly the theme of the powerful Still Life with a Skull painted in the winter of 1907–08; for almost all the objects in it are traditionally found in moralizing still lifes with that theme. If the skull symbolizes the transience of human life, the books and pipe beside it and the palette and brushes behind it stand for sensory and intellectual pleasures, and the same is true of the framed object in the background, whether it is a mirror or a painting of a nude related to one of those in the Demoiselles. The intensity of Picasso’s emotion, which is also apparent in the conflicting, angular rhythms and dissonant red, brown, and lavender tones he employs, may well reflect his reaction to the suicide of another artist he knew, the German painter Wiegels. It occurred in a studio in the same building as his own and, according to Fernande Olivier, continued to haunt him the following spring.33 Thirty-five years later, we recall, Picasso painted another still life with a skull, this time an ox’s skull, to commemorate the death of the sculptor Julio Gonzalez.34

The melancholy and the sensual, the hermit and the provocative nude, are again depicted, in a style again reminiscent of Cézanne’s, in a watercolor of 1908 that has remained unpublished and unexhibited outside Scandinavia; and to them is now added a meditative Harlequin based on other works by Cézanne.35 In a symmetrical, almost heraldic composition whose highly structured character is typical of Early Cubism, Picasso juxtaposes on the surface three figures occupying different positions in space. St. Anthony and Harlequin—the one identified by his monkish cowl, the other by his bicorn hat—are seated in the foreground; between them, like a statue on a pedestal, is a nude woman standing in the distance. The traditional theme of The Temptation of St. Anthony is fused here with the more personal one of the ascetic Harlequin. Yet the latter too had a tradition in the Romantic and Symbolist type of the “pauvre Pierrot,” and the two themes would even have been combined in a Temptation of St. Pierrot that Hennique and Huysmans announced in 1881 but never wrote.36 In any event Picasso would easily have associated The Temptation of St. Anthony with the milieu of Harlequin and Pierrot, since it had long been a favorite subject in the pantomimes performed at French carnivals and fairs and, in a slightly earlier period, at the Cirque Médrano itself.37 It was presumably the same sort of association that led him in 1921 to paint Harlequin, Pierrot, and a Franciscan monk as the Three Musicians (Z.4.3312), a puzzling work which this double historical precedent—in the popular theater and in his own art—begins to make more intelligible.

In 1908 Picasso drew another version of the watercolor on a woodblock that he never cut.38 Here the nude remains in the central position, but a second one occupies that of St. Anthony, so that she alone now appears opposite Harlequin and his identification with the hermit of the temptation scene is complete. Later in the year and in the following one Picasso carried this process further by eliminating the nude and showing Harlequin seated dejectedly at a table in a neutral interior, as in the Leaning Harlequin of 1909. But if this suppression of the anecdotal is consistent with the increasing austerity of his art at the time, it does not conceal the affinities between a Cubist Harlequin like this one and the more hermetic Harlequins that precede it: the act of temptation may be gone, but the mood of ascetic withdrawal remains. And this continues to be true even when his style has become so little representational as to be virtually abstract; for the intricately Cubist pictures of Pierrot and Harlequin made in 1911–12 (Z.2.277,333) may no longer be identifiable with the earlier types, but they retain in their austerely geometric structure and mysteriously resonant coloring an introspective, even hermetic quality that is linked with them in spirit.

Theodore Reff

This article is a summary of a longer one with fuller documentation, which will be published next year in Picasso, An Evaluation, ed. J. Golding and R. Penrose, London and New York.



1. Two important exceptions, on which I have drawn often, are: J. Runnqvist, Minotauros, en Studie i Förhållandet Mellan lconograh och Form i Picasso’s Konst, 1900–1937, Stockholm, 1959; and P. Palme, “La Vie: Ett Dödsmotiv hos den Unge Picasso,” Paletten, vol. 1, 1967, pp. 22–35. Throughout, I refer to C. Zervos, Picasso, Paris, 1932 ff., as “Z.” with a volume and work number.

2. J. Sabartès, Picasso, An Intimate Portrait, trans. A. Flores, New York, 1948, p. 94.

3. Sabartès, p. 77.

4. X. de Salas, “Some Notes on a Letter of Picasso,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 102, 1960, p. 484. Cf. Sabartès, p. 48.

5. J. Pla, Vida de Manolo, contada per ell mateix, Barcelona, 1953, pp. 104–107.

6. Public Education Association, New York, Picasso, An American Tribute, 25 April–12 May, 1962, works of 1895–1909, no. 16. Also below, note 22.

7. P. Daix, Période bleue de Picasso et le suicide de Casagemas,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. 69, 1967, pp. 239–246.

8. J. Palau I Fabre, “1900: A Friend of His Youth,” Homage to Picasso, ed. G. di San Lazarro, New York, 1971, pp. 3–12.

9. P. Daix and G. Boudaille, Picasso, The Blue and Rose Periods, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1966, no. V.45.

10. E.g., J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, New York, 1970, nos. F604, F499.

11. A. Blunt and P. Pool, Picasso, The Formative Years, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1962, caption of ill. 99–104.

12. R. Penrose, Picasso, His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 85–86.

13. F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 84.

14. R. Alley, Picasso, The Three Dancers (Charlton Lecture on Art), University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1967 (publ. 1970), pp. 11–16.

15. H.W. Singer, Max Klingers Radierungen, Stiche und Steindrucke, Berlin, 1909, no. 233.

16. E. Guldan, Eva und Maria, Eine Antithese als Bildmotiv, Graz and Cologne, 1966, pp. 213–214, 222.

17. J.-E. Cirlot, Picasso, Birth of A Genius, London, 1972, figs. 269, 266; Dais and Boudaille, nos. D.IX.4, 5.

18. Gilot and Lake, p. 350.

19. Blunt and Pool, caption of ill. 134–138; and H. Macfall, Aubrey Beardsley, London, 1928, pp. 89–91.

20. See above, note 6.

21. E.g., M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son oeuvre, New York, 1971, vol. 2, nos. 399, 429.

22. Gilot and Lake, p. 82.

23. G. Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 1933, pp. 29–30, 33. Cf. A. B. Toklas, What is Remembered, New York, 1963, pp. 29, 35.

24. Hugo Perls, the dealer in question, recalls giving it this title in 1927.

25. G. Apollinaire, Le Théâtre italien, Paris, 1910, pp. 32–34.

26. R. Gomez de la Serna, Le Cirque, trans. A. Falgairolle, Paris, 1927, p.27.

27. E.g., L. Delteil, Edgar Degas (Le Peintre-graveur illustré), Paris, 1919, no. 59.

28. T. Reff, “Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools,” Artforum, October, 1971, pp. 42–43.

29. Gilot and Lake, p. 82.

30. G.-A. Aurier, Oeuvres posthumes, Paris, 1893, p. 407.

31. L. Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” Art News, September, 1972, pp. 20–29, and October, 1972, pp. 38–47, figs. 3, 30–34.

32. J. Golding, Cubism, A History and an Analysis, London, 1959, pp. 49–51.

33. Penrose, pp. 133, 141.

34. Grand Palais, Paris, Hommage à Pablo Picasso, November, 1966–February, 1967, no. 197.

35. E.g., L. Venturi, Cézanne, son art, son oeuvre, Paris, 1936, nos. 684, 686, 688.

36. K. Huysmans, Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1928-29, vol. 5, pp. 129–133.

37. J. Garnier, Forains d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, Orléans, 1968, pp. 198–199, 211–212. H. Frichet, Le Cirque et les forains, Tours, 1898, p. 117.

38. B. Geiser, Picasso, peintre-graveur, Bern, 1933 ff., vol. 1, no. 219.