Le Repas Frugal stands at the centre of Picasso's first series of prints, La Suite des Saltimbanques, a collection of 15 etchings and drypoints executed in 1904-05. A key work of his early career, it is perhaps the quintessential, and final Blue Period icon.
As is well known, this melancholic time of introspection was precipitated by the death of Carlos Casagemas in February 1901 and was to last until the end of 1904. The crisis brought on a distinct change, not only in palette, but also in subject and attitude. His figures became enigmatic and emaciated, standing silently against vague or empty backgrounds. Paris is almost completely absent. The emotional tone was also different. The critical gaze of Picasso's earlier brightly coloured café scenes was replaced by one of empathy. The misfortune visited on the couple in Le Repas Frugal is not of their own making, and they suffer their fate with dignity. It should be remembered that Picasso lived amongst people such as these - the urban poor - who populated the writings of François Villon, the 16th century poet Picasso is known to have read and admired.
The transition between the Blue and the lighter 'Rose' or 'Harlequin' period was precipitated by the intense friendship Picasso formed with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Both became preoccupied with the Saltimbanques, the strolling acrobat players who had been a fixture of Parisian market squares and open spaces for centuries. Picasso remembered seeing a group on the Esplanade des Invalides in 1904, a time when he must have been engaged in the present work.
It is not certain that the couple in Le Repas Frugal were performers, but surely it is a deduction Picasso is happy for us to make. Therefore, whilst it was executed in the style of the previous period, the content looks forward to the new. The print, in John Richardson's opinion, 'links Picasso's Spanish past with his French future.' (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, London, 1991, vol. I, p. 300)
Le Repas Frugal marks another departure - it was Picasso's first major print, and only his second work in the medium. The artist was 23 at the time, living in Montmartre at 13 Rue Ravignan - christened the 'Bateau-Lavoir'. We have a fellow occupant, Ricardo Canals, to thank for Picasso's printmaking debut. The hesitant character of his first etching (El Zurdo (Ba. 1), 1899) was far superceded by the scale of conception and technical achievement five years later, arguably his greatest work in the medium and indeed one of the greatest in the history of printmaking.
The master printer Eugene Delâtre was responsible for the small number of impressions taken of Le Repas Frugal and the other plates (which only subesequently became known as La Suite des Saltimbanques), some of which were exhibited at the Galeries Serrurier in early 1905. Picasso had high hopes of making money from it, and sent two impressions to Sebastià Junyent, one to be passed on to Don José, Picasso's father, the other to show to prospective purchasers (this impression sold at Christie's London, July 1976). The number of sales that resulted, if any, are not known, and proceeds from the Serrurier exhibition hardly covered Picasso's costs. Undaunted, however, the eventual success of the Saltimbanques series led to printmaking becoming a life-long passion.
In 1913, the fifteen plates were bought by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who had them steel-faced by Louis Fort in order that he could print an edition of 250, and 27 or 29 on Japon. The present impression is from the edition on Japon. The paper imparts a silver/graphite lustre to the surface, significantly enhancing its visual appeal. Whilst Vollard and Fort must have intended the steel-faced edition to be uniform it is in fact quite variable in quality. Some are distinctly flat and two-dimensional, whereas others, such as the present impression, are rich and varied in tone and texture. When combined with the Japon paper the result comes close to the few fabled impressions before steel-facing.