The present watercolor is part of a series of paintings and drawings that Picasso made in 1917 on the theme of the harlequin, a character from Italian street theater or commedia dell'arte. Distinguished by his tricorn hat and diamond-patterned costume, the harlequin is shown playing a guitar, which stands out near the center of the heavily abstracted image. The harlequin had formed a central theme of Picasso's work during the Rose Period (circa 1904-1906), serving as a proxy for the young artist himself. Jeffrey Weiss has explained, "Transcribed in part from [Picasso's] firsthand experience of itinerant fairground entertainment in Montmartre, these saltimbanques also belong to a broad period iconography of the vagabond performing artist--and the artist in general--as estranged bohemian outcast. As such, they are familiar to us from the verse of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Laforgue, and Apollinaire, where saltimbanques and related characters from the commedia dell'arte embody creative genius and alienated melancholy" (in Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation, New York, 1995, p. 194).
During the First World War and the reconstruction years, the theme of the commedia dell'arte enjoyed renewed popularity among artists such as Juan Gris, Gino Severini, André Derain, and Jean Metzinger, who exploited it for its patriotic associations with Latin (versus Germanic) culture. Picasso first returned to the motif of the harlequin in 1915, in a haunting cubist composition that he described to Gertrude Stein as "the best thing I have done" (Zervos, vol. 2, no. 555; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; quoted in K. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 126). Commedia characters featured prominently in his drop curtain for Diaghilev's ballet Parade, which opened in May 1917; at the end of that year, the same time that the present watercolor was painted, Diaghilev approached Picasso about a new ballet based on the commedia character Pulcinella. In 1921, Picasso used the commedia dell'arte as the basis for one of his most important late cubist paintings, Les trois musiciens, which has been identified as a group portrait of Picasso (in the guise of Harlequin), Max Jacob, and the recently deceased Guillaume Apollinaire (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 331; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Susan Galassi has proposed, "His new-found sense of camaraderie with fellow artists in his ballet work may have rekindled Picasso's idealized sense of himself as a member of the wandering commedia group, a nostalgic evocation of his younger, more carefree self of the Rose Period" (in Picasso's Variations on the Masters: Confrontations with the Past, New York, 1996, p. 48).
During the late teens and early 1920s, Picasso worked simultaneously in several different artistic styles, including cubism and neo-classicism. Kenneth Silver has written, "Unlike other periods in his career, where we can sense a dominating impulse that shapes all the work of a given moment, Picasso is truly an eclectic during and after the Great War" (in op. cit., pp. 134-135). In the present painting, Picasso experimented with the pointillist technique pioneered by Georges Seurat in the mid-1880s, which involved the application of pigment in closely spaced dots and daubs. Picasso employed the same technique in several of his most important canvases from 1917, including a portrait of Olga Khokhlova wearing a Spanish mantilla (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 45; Museu Picasso, Barcelona) and a variation on La famille heureuse of 1642 by Louis Le Nain (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 96; Musie Picasso, Paris). Notably, Seurat's work enjoyed great popularity in the immediate post-war period. Picasso's close friend, the poet and critic André Salmon, hailed Seurat in a 1920 article as "the first to construct and compose" (quoted in ibid., p. 336); in the same year, Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier devoted the first issue of their periodical L'Esprit Nouveau to the Neo-Impressionist painter. Picasso's stylistic quotation of Seurat in the present work represents part of his ongoing attempt to define his own position among older masters, as well as his broader meditation on the endurance of culture in a wartime and post-war context. Michael FitzGerald has concluded:
By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity (in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 297).