The present painting is one of a group of delicate Blue Period watercolors and drawings that Picasso made in 1903, which depict Catalan peasants in traditional dress. In this example, a guitarist plays for a crowd of seated and standing onlookers; other works from the series show Catalan villagers dining, drinking, herding sheep, and dancing the jota, a local folk-dance (Zervos, vol. 1, nos. 178, 186, and 376; vol. 6, no. 563; Daix, nos. D.IX.14 and D.IX.19). The works date from the height of Picasso's Blue Period, following his return to Barcelona in January 1903 and before his definitive move to Paris fifteen months later.
It is rare for fully developed watercolors from this celebrated period to appear at auction. Pierre Daix has identified the images as evocations of Horta de Ebro, a remote village in the Catalan mountains where Picasso had lived from June 1898 until January 1899, convalescing from scarlet fever at the family farmstead of his friend Manuel Pallarès (see Daix, no. D.IX.13; also Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 36). Although little of Picasso's work from Horta survives, the 1898 sojourn was by all accounts a formative one for the seventeen-year-old artist. He later told Sabartès, "Everything that I know I learned at Pallarès's village" (quoted in ibid., p. 12); and John Richardson recalls that the knife that Picasso had used to sharpen pencils and skin hares at Horta was still in use at the artist's home more than sixty years later, "a trophy of one of the most idyllic periods of his life" (A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. I, p. 103). The exceptionally fluid watercolor technique that Picasso uses in the present painting, which is unusual for his Blue Period, lends the work a dream-like quality that supports the notion that it was painted from a distant memory.
Richardson, however, has questioned the hypothesis that the rustic-themed watercolors and drawings from 1903 depict Horta de Ebro, citing Picasso's habit in his early years of working from life. He proposes instead that Picasso may have gone in 1903 to visit his friends Ramon and Jacint Reventós on their country property at Tiana, a village about ten miles north of Barcelona. Although there is no secure evidence for a trip to Tiana in 1903, Ramon Reventós would later claim about Picasso's work from 1905 that "the ochres of his harlequins were stolen from the golden color of the vineyards at Tiana in the autumn" (quoted in ibid., p. 276). Whether the 1903 images depict Horta or Tiana, it is likely that Picasso made them with an eye toward the Paris market, where there was a continuing demand for Spanish subjects. During his first trip to the French capital in 1900, Picasso's bullfight scenes had been the first to sell, and he included no fewer than five paintings on explicitly Spanish themes in his watershed exhibition at Vollard's gallery the following summer (see P. Daix and G. Boudaille, op. cit., pp. 158-159, nos. 33-35 and 44-45).
The present watercolor is noteworthy as one of Picasso's earliest works to feature a guitarist or a guitar, the Spanish instrument par excellence and a recurrent motif in the artist's oeuvre during the 1910s and 1920s. In Les Trois musiciens of 1921 (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 331; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Picasso depicted himself in the guise of the guitar-playing Harlequin, a character from Italian street theater or commedia dell'arte, and it is likely that the guitarist in the present work--simultaneously the center of attention and a detached observer of the passing parade of life--also serves as a proxy for the young artist. In 1905, two years after the present watercolor was painted, Harlequin and other traveling performers would become a major theme in Picasso's work. Jeffrey Weiss has explained, "These saltimbanques 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 and Apollinaire, where saltimbanques and related characters from the commedia dell'arte embody creative genius and alienated melancholy" (Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation, New York, 1995, p. 194).