Le repas frugal is Picasso's second etching, created when the artist was only 23 years old, yet it is one of the greatest in the history of printmaking and a key work of his early career, perhaps the quintessential and final Blue Period icon.
'Picasso was working at the time on an etching, which has become famous since: it is of a man and a woman sitting at a table in a wine-shop. There is the most intense feeling of poverty and alcoholism and a startling realism in the figures of this wretched, starving couple.' (F. Olivier, Picasso and his friends, London, 1964, p. 27-8.)
Thus Fernande Olivier describes Le repas frugal, which she saw on her first visit to Picasso's studio at the Bateau Lavoir in August 1904. What she probably did not know was that the woman in the print is a portrait of Madeleine, Picasso's lover at the time. As it turned out, Picasso would divide his attentions between Madeleine and Fernande for quite some time before Fernande ultimately became the artist's first great love and muse. In the Summer of 1904, however, Madeleine still played an important role in Piccasso's life in Paris. The man seated next to her is a figure from the artist's past in Barcelona which he had finally left only four months earlier. He first appears in several sketches and a gouache from 1903 and then in the large painting Le repas de l'aveugle of the same year. Both the blind man from Barcelona and Madeleine from Paris would continue to haunt Picasso's imagination and their chiselled features and gaunt bodies re-appear in different guises until 1905. Le repas frugal thus bridges the Blue and Rose Periods and 'links Picasso's Spanish past with his French future.' (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, p. 300, London, 1991).
Whereas Madeleine would eventually be superseded in Picasso's life and work by Fernande, the blind man (and his alter ego the minotaur) would, as Roland Penrose observed, remain a central figure in the artist's personal mythology: 'The allegory of the blinded man has pursued Picasso throughout his life like a shadow as though reproaching him for his unique gift of vision.' (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1981, p. 89.)
Between his Blue and Rose Periods Picasso's interest shifted from the urban poor to the saltimbanques, the strolling acrobat players of Paris. The style and mood of his work also gradually changed. This is best illustrated by comparing Le repas de l'aveugle with the gouache Acrobate et jeune arlequin of 1905: there is an earthy weight and sense of deep sorrow about the former, whilst the latter is imbued with an ethereal elegance not found in the earlier pictures. Melancholy rather than intense grief became the prevailing sentiment. This transition towards a less sombre atmosphere is also manifest in Le repas frugal: the misery of the scene is alleviated by the couple's tender embrace and the woman's knowing smile. The stylistic shift towards more refined, elegant figures is particularly pronounced in the print: the bodies are emaciated and their limbs elongated to the extreme - an effect that is perhaps intensified by the linear quality of the etching technique. Not without reason has it been described as a mannerist print.