Le repas frugal is Picasso’s second etching, created when the artist was only 23 years old, yet it is one of the greatest in the history of printmaking and a key work of his early career, perhaps the quintessential and final Blue Period icon.
‘Picasso was working at the time on an etching, which has become famous since: it is of a man and a woman sitting at a table in a wine-shop. There is the most intense feeling of poverty and alcoholism and a startling realism in the figures of this wretched, starving couple’ (F. Olivier, Picasso and his friends, London, 1964, pp. 27-28).
In this way Fernande Olivier describes Le repas frugal, which she saw on her first visit to Picasso’s studio at the Bateau Lavoir in August 1904. What she probably did not know was that the woman in the print is a portrait of Madeleine, Picasso’s lover at the time. As it turned out, Picasso would divide his attentions between Madeleine and Fernande for quite some time before Fernande ultimately became the artist’s first great love and muse. In the summer of 1904 Madeleine however still played an important role in Picasso’s life in Paris. The man seated next to her is a figure from the artist’s past in Barcelona, which he had finally left only four months earlier. The figure first appears in several sketches and a gouache from 1903 and then in a large painting, Le repas de l’aveugle (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 168; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), of the same year. Both the blind man from Barcelona and Madeleine from Paris would continue to haunt Picasso’s imagination and their chiselled features and gaunt bodies re-appear in different guises until 1905. Le repas frugal therefore bridges the Blue and Rose Periods and ‘links Picasso’s Spanish past with his French future’ (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, London, 1991, p. 300).
Whereas Madeleine would eventually be superseded in Picasso’s life and work by Fernande, the blind man would, as Roland Penrose observed, remain a central figure in the artist’s personal mythology: ‘The allegory of the blinded man has pursued Picasso throughout his life like a shadow as though reproaching him for his unique gift of vision’ (Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1981, p. 89). Thirty years later, in the etching Minotaure aveugle guidé par une fillette dans la nuit, Picasso would recast this figure of self-reflection as a truly mythical creature, a blind minotaur. Just like the blind man in Le repas frugal, the minotaur is depicted as dependent on a young woman or girl for help and support.
For Picasso, the years up to 1904 had been overshadowed by the suicide of Carles Casagemas in February 1901. With his final move to Paris in April 1904, he slowly began to shake off the gloom the death of his best friend had cast over him. The style and mood of his work gradually changed. Simultaneously, Picasso’s interest shifted from the urban poor to the saltimbanques, the strolling acrobat street performers of Paris. This is best illustrated by comparing Le repas de l’aveugle or the Buveuse assoupie of 1902 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 120; Kunstmuseum Bern) with the gouache Acrobate et jeune arlequin of 1905 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 297; Private collection): there is an earthy weight and sense of deep sorrow about the former paintings, whilst the latter is imbued with an ethereal elegance not found in the earlier pictures. Melancholy rather than intense grief became the prevailing sentiment. This transition towards a less sombre atmosphere is also manifest in Le repas frugal: the misery of the scene is alleviated by the couple’s tender embrace and the woman’s knowing smile. The stylistic shift towards more refined, elegant figures is particularly pronounced in the print: the bodies are emaciated and their limbs elongated to the extreme – an effect that is perhaps intensified by the linear quality of the etching technique. Not without reason has it been described as a mannerist print.
Brigitte Baer saw the first germinations of Le repas frugal in two rather unassuming ink drawings in a sketch book of October 1903, one a still life of some glasses, a bottle and a plate on a table (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 529; Private collection), the other of a woman’s profile with a similar hairstyle to Madeleine (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 531; Private collection). More fascinating, however, than these tenuous roots are elements of Picasso’s later oeuvre which are first manifest in this etching. Not only does Le repas frugal stand at the turning point between the Blue and the Rose Period, it also carries the seed for Cubism: the still life, Carafon, pot et compotier of 1909 (Zervos, vol. 2a, no. 164; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) clearly has its precursor here, in the heavily crumpled surface of the tablecloth.
Picasso’s first print, El Zurdo, was created in 1899 in Barcelona. It is a rather awkward work and the young artist presumably printed just a few impressions, of which only a single example survives. Four years later, probably prompted by his friend and neighbour Ricard Canals, Picasso tackled the medium once more and, apparently without further practice or experiments, created Le repas frugal. That a work of such technical mastery and haunting beauty was only his second attempt in the medium is testament to the artist’s extraordinary innate talent. Le repas frugal in that sense marks another departure: the beginning of Picasso’s life-long exploration of printmaking.
Whether he was intent on creating a graphic masterpiece right from the start we will never know, but despite his inexperience he began etching the plate – one of the largest he would ever work on – with remarkable confidence and nonchalance. In fact, he was either too poor or nonchalant to acquire a new plate. Instead he used one which had already been etched by Joan González, the brother of the sculptor Julio González. Neither Picasso, nor Canals who helped him prepare the plate, even bothered to burnish out the original design by González, and remnants of plants and a landscape can still be detected in the background.
The earliest impressions of Le repas frugal were printed in small numbers by the master printer Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907) over several months between September 1904 and March 1905. Delâtre probably printed these first impressions according to demand, whenever Picasso requested one. Picasso was clearly proud of his print and had high hopes of making money from it. He sent two impressions to his friend Sebastiá Junyent in Barcelona, ??one to be passed on to Picasso’s father, the other to show to prospective purchasers. The etching was first exhibited in early 1905 at the Galeries Serrurier in Paris, together with some of his subsequent etchings of street performers. It is not known whether he sold any impressions through Junyent and the proceeds from the exhibition hardly covered Picasso’s costs. Together with Le repas frugal, this group of early etchings later came to be known as La suite des saltimbanques. They were never properly published until 1913, when the plates were purchased by the publisher Ambroise Vollard and printed in an edition of 250. Vollard had the plates steel-faced, a process in which the copper plates were electroplated with a thin layer of steel, in order that they could stand being printed in larger numbers. In the process, the etched lines lose depth and definition and print much less strongly. It is therefore only in the early impressions before steel-facing, such as with this fine example, that the beauty and atmosphere can be fully appreciated, printing with intense contrasts and a strong sense of three-dimensionality.
It is not known how many impressions exactly were printed by Auguste Delâtre in 1904 and 1905. Bernhard Geiser and Brigitte Baer record one impression of the first state (Musée Picasso, Paris); and approximately 35 impressions of the second state, including three printed in Prussian blue. Of these, the following nine examples are in public collections: The Museum of Modern Art, New York (signed, dedicated to Junyent); the Art Institute of Chicago (two impressions: one in blue, signed; one unsigned); Musée Picasso, Paris (signed, numbered no. 1); Museo Picasso, Barcelona (signed, numbered no. 2); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (signed, numbered no. 3); Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. (signed, numbered no. 4); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (signed, dedicated to Mlle. Gatte); and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (signed, dedicated to Canudo).