By 1919, the year following the end of the First World War, Picasso was committed to two radically different stylistic tendencies in his painting. The first approach was a continuation of Synthetic Cubism. The problems of depicting objects in space continued to intrigue the artist, and he generally used a Cubist method when painting still-lifes. The second approach was Picasso's new Neoclassical manner, stemming from his work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, in which he forged a style based on the linear precision of Ingres and the Old Masters. To counter the mechanical and analytical character of Cubism, which to many reflected the breakdown of traditional order during the war years, Picasso sensed that the time was right for a new approach to the figure, and his Neoclassical manner was essentially a recovery of figuration and a re-examination of traditional formal values.
However, few admirers of the artist's work found this stylistic bipolarity easy to accept. Critics thought that the artist was being insincere and was attempting to pander to public tastes. "Depending on one's aesthetic point of view, Picasso's Neoclassicism of the late teens and early twenties represents either an eclectic blossoming or a chaotic decay because of his refusal to work in an exclusively Cubist style. Yet, stylistic complexity is the central issue of Picasso's art in these years, and it was crucial to his worldwide fame" (M.C. FitzGerald, Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1995, pp. 100-101). Towards the end of the decade Picasso began to shift his allegiance from the pro-cubist Léonce Rosenberg, director of the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, who had taken over Picasso's sales during the war years while Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler had to remain in Germany, to his brother Paul, whose gallery was more conservatively oriented toward Renoir and the Impressionists. In 1919 Picasso had his one and only show at Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, a survey of Cubism, and thereafter he showed exclusively at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, where his stylistic eclecticism was warmly received and generated more sales.
The present painting represents one side of Picasso's stylistic coin at the end of the 'teens. Based on an old photograph he kept, the subject is a young girl and boy on the occasion of their first communion. While some elements in the composition, such as the chair in the foreground and the sitters' hands, are instantly recognizable, the children's bodies have been broken down into sharply angular columnar planes and integrated within the space; the background is contrasted by means of the curved folds of drapery.
During the same winter Picasso painted a companion picture, almost three times the height of the present work, but in a Neoclassical manner, Les premiers communiants (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., no. 374; coll. Musée Picasso, Paris), for which there are additionally several studies. The placement of the two children is identical and the chair is similarly arranged, although slightly angled into the picture plane. In place of a composed background in the Cubist version, Picasso borrows from the photograph a vague, empty space for the background of the Musée Picasso picture, in which shadows hint at depth.
The formal elements in both pictures seem diametrically opposed, and the subject itself carries very different connotations in each version. In the present painting the subject is only marginally relevant to overall conception of the picture, which is dominantly formal in intent and largely devoid of sentiment. The Neoclassical version is formally less innovative (except as an alternate response to the Cubist method). However the subject comes to the fore, and while there is a certain folk-like charm and refreshing simplicity in this rendering, modernists would surely object to its genre-like sentimentality and pietism. It is perhaps for this reason (and whatever personal meaning the photograph possessed) that Picasso did not sign and exhibit Les premiers communiants.
Picasso's involvement in Neoclassicism began to diminish in the late 1920s as he exhausted the possibilities inherent in a limited range of subjects. However, throughout this period he continued to mine the richer vein of Cubism; it proved to be a durable formal discipline capable of periodic rejuvenation. After 1925 Picasso's interest in the new Surrealist movement provided the impetus for reasserting the formal concepts of Cubism, and this time his subject matter would come mainly from his own inner life, his internal conflicts and emotional relationships with others.