The present painting is an important canvas from Picasso's Blue period, arguably the artist's first signature style. While the exact dates of this period have generated much debate--some scholars say that it began in Paris in the second half of 1901, while others claim that it started in Barcelona probably during the month (between May 15 and June 15) that the artist spent in Barcelona--it is generally agreed that the period ended in 1904, when Picasso's palette changed from blue to rose. With his Blue period paintings, Picasso introduced a corpus of images related to sex and death, intertwined themes that would reappear in later seminal canvases like Les demoiselles d'Avignon (Zervos, I, 18); The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and that would ultimately inform Picasso's art throughout his career. The Blue period represents Picasso most extensive experimentation with monochromes, and the present painting, one of the most outstanding works in this group, offers an extraordinarily poignant portrayal of soulful introspection.
The paintings of Picasso's Blue period evidence a shift not only in style but also in subject matter, a divergence from his documentation of the modern metropolis (fig. 1) to an exploration of the sentiments behind social interactions. When he returned to Paris from Madrid in May 1901, Picasso was poised for unprecedented success. He began immediate preparation for the exhibition of his work that his first Paris dealer Père Mañach had organized at Ambroise Vollard's gallery. This exhibition included sixty-four paintings and drawings, so many of them showing scenes of urban leisure that Picasso was characterized in the catalogue preface as an "impetuous lover of contemporary life" (Gustave Coquiot, quoted in ed. M. McCully, Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 144).
The works were extremely well received by critics, collectors, and gallery-goers alike, and one review imparted the general assessment of the young painter's exceptional abilities, praising, in particular, his already impressive achievements in painting:
[Picasso] is the painter, utterly and beautifully the painter; he has the power of divining the essence of things . . . Like all pure painters he adores color for its own sake . . . he is enamored of all subjects, every subject is his . . . It is evident that his passionate surge forward has not left him the leisure to forge for himself a personal style; his personality exists in this passion, this juvenile impetuous spontaneity (they say that he is not yet twenty and covers as many as three canvases a day (F. Fagus [nom de plume of the poet Georges Faillet] quoted in ibid., p. 13).
By the end of 1901, the vibrant environment and lively scenes of Montmartre no longer apppeared in the artists work. As Picasso's subject matter became radically different that it shifted almost to the opposite extreme: the popular nightspots and their abundant revelers were replaced with solitary women and nebulous spaces; compositions were no longer structured by bursts of color but instead suffused in an atmosphere of blue. The paintings from the Blue period are characterized not only by their monochromatic tones but also by the themes of poverty and religion, sex and death. Picasso's friend Sabartés rightly spoke of Picasso's turn toward, "beggars, sick people, the crippled, the hungry, and prostitutes painted in the same style," or as Pierre Daix has commented, these subjects announced the artist's ". . . descent into hell . . . [into] the depths of solitude and despair" (quoted in Daix and Boudaille, op. cit., p. 51; and P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1991, p. 30).
Picasso has acknowledged that his Blue period was precipitated by his confrontation with and contemplation of death. Among the earliest paintings to show this change in palette are the canvases that the artist completed in response to his best friend's suicide. In 1901, Casagemas, distraught over an unconsummated romance, shot himself at a Montmartre restaurant. While the Blue period may have had its beginnings in Picasso's personal reaction to this particular event, it crystallized themes at the foundation of the artist's career. As Sabartés has explained, Picasso was obsessed with the idea that:
Art emanates from Sadness and Pain . . . Sadness lends itself to meditation . . . grief is at the basis of life. We are passing through . . . a period of uncertainty that everyone regards from the viewpoint of his own misery . . . a period of grief, of sadness, and of misery. Life with all its torments is at the core of Picasso's theory of art. If we demand sincerity of the artist, we must remember that sincerity is not to be found outside the realm of grief (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, 1881-1906, vol. 1, New York, 1991, p. 217).
Pierre Daix and Georges Boudaille have offered Picasso's artistic precedents for his choice of a blue tonality, asserting that:
In the Paris phase it is almost equivalent to the blue of photographic proofs, a way, in keeping with the disillusion of his twenty years, to embody his expressionist conception through monochrome. It is the blue of Lautrec's nights by gaslight and electricity. It is also, no doubt, a pursuit of the Impressionist experiment with blues to indicate shadow. And perhaps also it is related to the blues of Cézanne, unrealistic, but very forceful indicating relief and plastic construction. Everything justified Picasso's return to this color, and his lasting taste for it is well-known. Moreover, it was characteristic of him to push this experiment as far as it would go, right to the renunciation of color. It is the opposite of the sparkling play of colors of the Vollard exhibition period, but it involved an equally arbitrary attitude towards color . . . We must not forget that Picasso knew very well what was pleasing in his earlier work, and if he turned his back on it so obstinately it was because, for him, art does not exist on the level of its success nor on material circumstances, but is the very meaning of life. The blue was a conception of painting (Daix and Boudaille, op. cit., p. 56).
Similarly, Denys Chevalier has argued that this monochromatic tone only reinforces the melancholic state of isolation, also evident in the physical articulation of the figures' bodies:
As Picasso defined it in plastic terms, this isolation weighs down the shoulders of the painter's models. They bend, they are bowed, they arch, as if succumbing to the weight of the fatality that crushes them. There is no question that this deformation, which appears almost consistently in all his paintings done toward the end of his stay in Paris, is symbolic in origin. It is neither gratuitous or arbitrary, but deliberate and profoundly significant . . . [Picasso's] dramatization makes us come face to face with an alien world, not hostile, but alien . . . The locus of emotions is not a definite perceptible space but, rather, the absence of fixed space, a disintegration of space, or a freeing from a spatial environment . . . he gave a concrete, albeit symbolic, expression to a materialism conveyed by the subject matter of his paintings, which referred to specific social circumstance (D. Chevalier, Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, New York, 1991, pp. 36-44).
Juan-Eduardo Cirlot has described the artistic significance behind Picasso's monochromes, the variations within Picasso's blues, and even echoes Picasso's own assertions about the color:
The idea of using one dominant colour, not just for one picture but for many, goes further than the concept of a 'series', like Monet's cathedrals; it would be more accurate to call it a 'cycle' of even a whole microcosm. Picasso's idea was to live in a permanently blue world, and we say live because for him painting is life. This blue can be treated in the most varied ways--as a flat wash, to show contrasting light and shade (light blue against dark blue), with superimposed patches of greenish blue, lightened or intensified with various types of illumination. It can be restricted to the background and the dress of the figures or it can be used in the flesh-tints . . . It is a blue which makes us think of night, but it is the symbol rather of maternal protection, of rest and forgetful dreams to soothe the sufferings of humble people, than of dark hostile power. Picasso has always been deeply humanitarian . . . [and] sensitive to human suffering, and he seems to have been strongly impelled to translate it into paint (J.-E. Cirlot, Picasso: Birth of a Genius, New York, 1972, pp. 132-133).
The present painting is a seminal example of early works from Picasso's Blue period, likely executed during the months when the artist moved between France and Spain. Its early execution could explain the discrepancies in dates that have been assigned to the picture, which range from 1901 to 1903. It is likely that the canvas was begun in France in the second half of 1901 and transported to Spain, where Picasso made additional changes to the composition. This probability has been confirmed by an x-ray (fig. 2) revealing that Picasso made specific changes to the composition, repainting the hair of this figure to remove her original hood. This reworking exemplifies Picasso's distinctive method during this period, when he often altered canvases and even concealed entire compositions under later representations. One of his portraits of Sabartés, for instance, was executed over the image of a woman wearing a hood, a figure quite similar to Picasso's original idea for the present painting.
The discovery of the original hood on this figure established a significant context within Picasso's works of this period, relating undeniably to the works that Picasso executed after visiting the Saint-Lazare hospital-prison in Paris (figs. 3 and 4). In the second half of 1901, Picasso frequented this institution in search of models.
The present painting is a paradigmatic expression of misery and torment, evident in the orientation of the woman's body and in the austerity of the setting. With her arms crossed, she is related to those that Picasso sketched in several drawings from approximately the same period (Zervos, I, 112 and 114) and used in an earlier image of an absinthe drinker (Zervos, I, 100), seated in a café. By contrast, her body posture, a clear gesture of self-enclosure, seems to reinforce a sense of isolation already intensified by her elusive gaze. Her solitude is palpable, and her setting is nebulous, conveying a physical and emotional disconnection that reflects her social alienation.
Sabartés has provided a lengthy description of a related painting (fig. 5) which, like the detection of the cap, offers greater insight into the iconography and style of the present picture. In his discussion of this painting, Picasso's friend draws particular attention "to the bluish-white of a moonbeam coming through the window in this painting which shows a woman seated in a prison cell; the pale moon coming to caress her, finds her huddled up and makes her shoulders shiver still more with cold" (quoted in Daix and Boudaille, op. cit., p. 51). This description is equally important for the present painting, in which a beam of light descends diagonally from the upper right. This subtle illumination is the only lasting indication of the woman's confinement in a prison cell. As John Richardson has noted, the fact that "The Saint-Lazare women were victims of society nobody would deny, but they are also to some extent Picasso's victims. There is a hint of eroticism, even sadism, to their portrayal . . . Years later Picasso would describe women with some relish as 'suffering machines'. No wonder there is more romantic agony than social criticism to Blue period imagery" (ibid., p. 222).
The present painting was one of several examples of Picasso's Blue period works originally in the collection of Gertrude Stein (fig. 6), the American ex-patriate and early supporter of European modernism. With her brother Leo, she began acquiring many of the most radical paintings being produced by vanguard artists like Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. She remained in close rapport with a number of them as a collector and connoisseur, sometimes as a friend, and she hosted a series of weekly Salons at her home on Saturday evenings, gatherings which became increasingly devoted to Picasso and his circle (fig. 7).
The paintings of the Blue period comprise some of Picasso's most concise and compelling portrayals of human emotion. The physical distortions in these figures and the dissolutions of distinct settings in the represented environments are significant, anticipating the evocative potential that the artist later exploited in his revolutionary manipulation of traditional pictorial idioms, in both the fragmentation of forms and the disintegration of space that define of his Cubist pictures. Above all, Picasso concentrated on the expressive possibilities of the human form, as exemplified in seminal works such as Femme aux bras croisés.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1900.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
(fig. 2) X-ray of the present painting.
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 3) Théphile Steinlen, Saint-Lazare, 1892.
Cover for the Le Mirliton with a verse of Aristide Bruant's song "A Saint-Lazare", March 1892.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
(fig. 4) Photograph of the Saint-Lazare hospital-prison.
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Femme au fichu assise, 1902.
The Detroit Art Institute.
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1905-1906.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 7) The Steins' salon at 58, rue Madame, Paris, circa 1909.