Picasso painted this moody portrait of his friend Àngel Fernández de Soto in Barcelona, likely during the latter part of 1899. At the time he completed it, he may not yet have attained his eighteenth birthday (25 October). Having ceased attending academy classes in Madrid more than a year previously, Picasso joined the circle of Catalan modernistas who congregated at the café Els Quatre Gats. This portrait is a rare instance of the artist having chosen to work in oils when depicting one of his new confrères, at a time when he was otherwise drawing numerous studies of them in various media on paper, which he exhibited to acclaim in a one-man show held on the café premises in February 1900. Picasso again reserved the special treatment of an oil portrait when he turned later in 1899 to depict his most intimate friend among them all, Carles Casagemas, who subsequently accompanied the artist on his first trip to Paris in the fall of 1900. Early the following year Casagemas shot himself over an abortive love affair, a tragedy that profoundly affected Picasso, eventually leading him into his Blue period.
This portrait of Soto, darkly serious, may seem to anticipate the pathos of the Blue period some two years hence. Among the clique that hung out at Els Quatre Gats were devil-may-care bohemians, profligate decadents, and neurasthenic aesthetes of the kinds found in all the great cities of Europe, young men who found themselves trapped and conflicted within a maze of alienation, negation and frustration, while clinging to the promise of modernist reform and progress they hoped the dawn of new century would soon bring them. Picasso at age eighteen moved among such types, but was already wise and self-reliant beyond his years. He had witnessed the death from diphtheria of his beloved sister Conchita in 1895. Less than three years later, Picasso barely survived a bout with scarlet fever, nursed back to health by his other sister Lola. He then spent the summer with his friend Manuel Pallarès roughing it in the mountains, for a time even living in a cave, near Horta del Ebro.
During this period Picasso freed himself from the demands of his family, and especially the wishes of his father, also a painter, but one of mediocre talent who tried to impose deeply conservative ideas on his son. A hard and untiring worker, the young artist dedicated himself to mastering a craft for which in the schools he had already demonstrated deeply innate and prodigious abilities. Picasso already possessed the keenly perceptive quality essential to a fine portraitist; he was quick at sizing up the character of an acquaintance, detecting pretensions and foibles, while appreciating the stronger qualities he valued, such as loyalty and amiability.
Especially dear to Picasso were the two Soto brothers, Mateu and Angel, who like himself and others at Els Quatre Gats were fervent partisans for Catalan independence. Mateu was a sculptor, a serious young man deeply committed to his art, although it brought him little financial reward. With him Picasso shared a studio in Barcelona during 1899, and both Mateu and Angel were in Paris the following year when Picasso made his first trip there. Picasso painted Mateu twice in the early winter of 1901, when the penniless sculptor moved into his Paris studio, at the beginning of the Blue period (Zervos, vol. 1, nos. 86 and 94).
Angel was an altogether different sort than his brother. Although he aspired to be a painter, he rarely applied himself. He and Picasso shared a studio in Barcelona in 1902 and 1903, when Picasso returned there between his disappointing trips to Paris. According to Josep Palau i Fabre, Picasso nicknamed Angel “Patas,” Catalan for “buddy” (op. cit., 1981, p. 286). Picasso described Angel to John Richardson as “an amusing wastrel.” He worked at a meager salary for a spice merchant.
“Picasso was so taken with Angel’s stylishness and [political] intransigence that they became inseparable,” Richardson explained. “I asked Picasso why he had depicted this penniless friend as a foppish man-about-town in white tie and tails. Angel was a dandy who sometimes eked out his small salary by hiring out as an extra in theaters, he explained, and the spectacle of him improbably attired in borrowed finery as an elegant boulevardier, dashing officer or habitué of Maxim’s inspired these fanciful portraits. Despite these disguises, Angel is always instantly recognizable, thanks to the lantern jaw and sardonic expression that Picasso catches so affectionately” (op. cit., 1991, pp. 116-117).
The present portrait of Soto is among Picasso’s earliest attempts to forge a personally expressive style that moved beyond the orbit of his academic training and the apprentice naturalism he had been practicing to good effect in his painting thus far. Given his serious frame of mind, he opted for darkness. “In the spring of 1899, [Picasso] embarked on a phase that can best be described as tenebrism,” Richardson has written, “the term that is usually applied to the dark, religious work of the Spanish masters Ribera and Valdes Leal” (ibid., p. 123). The cultivation of rich blacks was a hallmark of the Spanish style, and Picasso admired the “magnificent heads of El Greco,” as he described them, which he studied in the Prado (quoted in M. McCully, ed., Picasso: The Early Years, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 27).
At that time a taste for El Greco implied a subversive intent. Francisco de Bernareggi, a fellow student in Madrid during 1897, recalls a session he spent with Picasso copying an El Greco: “The people around us were scandalized and called us modernistes. We sent our copies to our professor (Picasso’s father), who responded severely: ‘You’re taking the wrong road’... El Greco was considered a danger” (quoted in ibid.). Around the time Picasso worked on this portrait of Soto, he painted a head in the manner of El Greco (Palau i Fabre, no. 332), and drew studies of elongated visages and figures, one of which he inscribed “Yo el Greco” (Picasso Project, no. 1899-301; other drawings are Zervos, vol. 1, no. 378; vol. 6, nos. 152 and 223; and vol. 21, no. 66).
Both Angel and Mateu Fernandez de Soto featured among the portrait drawings that Picasso showed at Els Quatre Gats in February 1900 (Zervos, vol. 21, nos. 98 and 100). Thereafter Picasso treated Angel in a more humorous vein, in quickly sketched caricatures executed in Barcelona during 1902-1903, and most importantly as the sitter for one of his greatest Blue Period portraits (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 201). They eventually grew out of touch, to cross paths one last time, albeit at a distance, in 1937. Torn by civil war, the beleaguered Spanish Republic named Picasso as honorary director of the Prado; Angel was then serving as deputy of the arts in the Loyalist cabinet. Picasso was living in Paris, out of danger. Angel, in Madrid, was in thick of it, and not so fortunate—the civil war claimed his life in 1938.