In this spirited and vigorous drawing Picasso depicts an adolescent boy as Harlequin, one of his best known signature subjects. The character Harlequin originated as one of the zanni, or stock servant roles, in the Italian Commedia dell'Arte of the 16th-18th centuries, in which he was known as Arlecchino. He was frequently scheming and greedy, but often thwarted because he was not very smart, and a major part of his performance was to amuse the audience with cartwheels, back-flips and other acrobatics. Picasso was attracted to this latter aspect, with its connection to the French saltimbanque, or traveling circus performer, who held a lowly social position as an outsider and lived from hand to mouth, a situation he thought analogous to that of the artist in society. Moreover, there was Harlequin's visually striking costume, a colorful, lozenge-shaped design with ruffled collar. He usually wore a cocked hat in the late 18th century style, and a mask.
Harlequin first appeared in Picasso's work in two paintings done in Paris during Autumn 1901: Les deux saltimbanques (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 92; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), and Arlequin accoudé (Z. vol. I, no. 79; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). While Harlequin was absent during the Blue Period, he assumed a pre-eminent role during the Rose Period. Picasso depicted himself in Harlequin's costume in Au Lapin Agile, Paris 1905 (Z. vol. 1, no 275; The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Picasso represented Harlequin as a young boy in numerous Rose Period works.
While visiting Italy in 1917 to work on designs for the ballet Parade for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Picasso had the opportunity to observe the traditions of the Commedia dell'Arte firsthand. Harlequin became an important subject during his neo-classical period. The most charming and endearing use of the harlequin subject in Picasso's paintings is surely to be seen in Paulo dressed as Harlequin (fig. 1), in which the artist portrayed his three-year son by his marriage to Olga Kokhlova. In the following year Picasso painted a companion piece, Le fils de l'artiste en pierrot (Z. vol. 5, no. 374; Musée Picasso, Paris), in which his son is clad in the conventional white costume of the French pantomime clown. While painting ths pair of portraits, Picasso may have in mind Cézanne's Mardi Gras, 1888 (Rewald no. 618; Pushlin Museum, Moscow), in which the figures of Pierrot and Harlequin stand side by side.
Picasso was very likely following this precedent when on 12 July 1961 he made two drawings, Pierrot (Z. vol. 20, no. 135) and Arlequin (the present drawing). While the young man seems introspective in the former, playing the role of the "sad clown", in Arlequin he is wide-eyed, and appears outgoing and self-assured. The present drawing probably alludes to a well-known Cézanne sheel of sketches in the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre, Studies for Mardi Gras, circa 1888 (Chapius no. 938), which also shows an adolescent boy (Cézanne's son), but with the image reversed. Picasso has made Arlequin a dual tribute to the Commedia dell'Arte and Cézanne, the painter whom he admired and emulated most amoung all of his early modern predecessors, while moreover commemorating his own appropriation of Harlequin in the creation of his artistic persona, symbolized here by the mask. This was process that began exactly sixty years before 1901, and the drawing Arlequin, a portrait of the artist as a young man, reflects on this long history, as viewed in the mond of the artist as an old man.