Rendered in delicate veils of gouache and watercolor, this poetically poignant Les Saltimbanques bears quiet witness to a moment of profound transition for Picasso. In April 1904, the 23-year old artist, who had already paid three visits to Paris, left Barcelona and settled again in the French capital, this time for good. He rented a studio at 13, rue Ravignan, on the top floor of a dilapidated artist’s building nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir after its resemblance to a rickety laundry barge. Determined to make this stay in Paris a success, Picasso found new friends outside his accustomed circle of Catalan transplants, especially the poets Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, and André Salmon; after a brief fling with a sulky-looking gamine called Madeleine, he met his first real love, Fernande Olivier, in August.
Although Picasso remained a typically penniless bohemian artist, one of many unknowns in Montmartre, he had reason to feel hopeful—and little by little, during the summer and fall of 1904, the blue light that had pervaded his work for the past two years began to lose its chill. In the present painting, a golden glow breaks through the atmospheric, indigo wash that surrounds the intimately composed figural group—two boys and a girl, ranging in age from youth to adolescence, with their wraith-like father standing over them protectively. At the bottom left corner, the image turns a ruddy pink hue, the Blue period now blurring into the Rose.
Les Saltimbanques, moreover, represents an early appearance of Picasso’s Rose Period subject par excellence: the itinerant circus performer. His favorite entertainment at this time—virtually the only one he could afford—was the Cirque Médrano, which was permanently quartered in its own building at the foot of Montmartre. Rather than focusing on individual star performers at the Médrano, though, as Lautrec and other artists had done, Picasso found his subjects among the smaller traveling troupes that passed through Montmartre—anonymous figures whom he cast in family groups, as characters of a gentle, unassuming demeanor whose lives were touched with melancholia. The sensitivity to character and mood that Picasso displayed in these nostalgic, introspective pictures makes it clear that he was closely identifying with his subjects, more convincingly and with greater subtlety than he had done in his Blue period, empathizing with them as one marginalized artist in homage to another.
The earliest recorded owner of Les Saltimbanques was the dealer Clovis Sagot, Picasso’s first regular patron, who opened his Galerie du Vingtième Siècle in 1903 after a stint as a clown in the Cirque Médrano. Sagot was the first to promote Picasso’s cubist paintings later in the decade, even before Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler; the most influential collectors of the era, from the Steins to Sergei Shchukin, frequented his shop. He was also shrewd, tight-fisted, and relentless as a negotiator—one of the main reasons, Picasso later claimed, for his lifelong mistrust of dealers.