Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906
This teachers' guide investigates three National Gallery of Art paintings included in the exhibition Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906 (March 30-July 27 1997). This guide is written for teachers of middle and high school students. It includes background information, discussion questions and suggested activities.
Pablo Picasso, one of the most dynamic and influential artists of our century, achieved success in drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and ceramics as well as in painting. He experimented with a number of different artistic styles during his long career. The exhibition The Early Years traced his development from 1892-1906, just prior to the advent of cubism.
Picasso was born in Málaga on the southern coast of Spain in 1881. He was exposed to art from a very young age by his father, who was a painter and art instructor. After studying at various art schools between 1892 and 1896, including academies in Barcelona and Madrid, he went on to the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid during the winter of 1896-1897. Picasso soon became bored with academics and set himself up as an independent artist.
In Barcelona in 1899 Picasso's circle of friends included young avant-garde artists and writers who traveled between Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. Picasso also visited these cities and absorbed the local culture. His early works were influenced by old masters such as El Greco and Velázquez and by modern artists including Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso moved to Paris in 1904 and settled in a dilapidated section of Montmartre, a working-class quarter. This area was home to many young artists and writers, and he was gradually assimilated into their stimulating intellectual community. Although Picasso benefited greatly from the artistic atmosphere in Paris and his circle of friends, he was often lonely, unhappy, and terribly poor. During this period his sympathy for social outcasts was reflected in his art, both in his subject matter -- including blind beggars and destitute families -- and in his melancholy blue color schemes. Picasso's "Blue period," from 1901 to 1904, is represented in the exhibition by Le Gourmet (The Greedy Child) (1901) and Tragedy (1903).
In 1905 Picasso's works are characterized by a new palette of roses or russets, as well as a shift in subject matter and form. Paintings from this "Rose period" often show transient fairground performers in contemplative moods. The focus is frequently on a group of figures who seem to function as a family or a band of vagabonds, as seen in the paramount work in this series, the large Family of Saltimbanques.
Le Gourmet (The Greedy Child) suggests the direction Picasso's art was to take between late 1901 and 1904. It anticipates the Blue period, when his palette became almost exclusively blue, his figures tragic, his mood melancholy, and his style more expressive.
The young girl in this work is tipping her bowl to scrape out a last morsel of food. She is shown with just the barest necessities -- a nearly empty bowl, a mug, and a scrap of bread on the table. The titles given this painting seem to be ironic comments on the child's humble condition.
Picasso emphasized curving outlines in the painting by reinforcing them with thick brush strokes. The simplified shapes, flattened background, and skewed perspective create a patterned effect that suggests this scene is removed from the everyday world. The sense of unreality is greatly heightened by the pervasive blue tonality, which nearly overpowers every other color.
The thin, barefoot, shabbily clothed figures in this Blue period composition refer to physical deprivations, which Picasso himself experienced as he struggled to establish himself as an artist. In addition to the cold and hunger of poverty, the work expresses psychological suffering, which may reflect the dislocation that Picasso experienced as a young and destitute foreigner in Paris. This powerful image conveys a sense of spiritual alienation in keeping with the intellectual discontent of his bohemian milieu.
Tragedy is one of a number of Blue period paintings that capture the mood of melancholy and isolation. There is no specific narrative associated with the painting. The man, the woman, and the child exemplify the depths of the human condition. In fact, the ambiguous quality of the work -- so laden with meaning, yet beyond literal interpretation -- is another of its modern aspects. In an era of few certainties, traditional storytelling may have no longer been seen to serve a meaningful artistic function.
The figures are carefully drawn, and the contours of their bodies reveal much about their states of mind. The faces, especially of the males, are rendered in a way that suggests Picasso's academic training. His Spanish roots are also evident: the elongated proportions that emphasize the sadness of these figures are reminiscent of the work of El Greco, the most important painter of the sixteenth century to work in Spain; and the innate human dignity that these figures maintain in the face of tragedy is characteristic of the paintings of the great Spanish baroque artist Diego Velázquez.
This scene of fairground performers was Picasso's most significant work to date. The name of the painting comes from the Italian words saltare, meaning "to leap," and banco, "bench," which refers to the stage on which the acrobats usually performed. Saltimbanques were the lowest order of acrobats; Picasso pictured them as vagabonds with simple props in an empty, desertlike landscape. He was familiar with earlier representations of clowns and harlequins from eighteenth-century art, which frequently included figures from the commedia dell'arte, a popular theatrical form featuring stock characters and their antics. These characters played significant roles in the paintings of such artists as Tiepolo, the Le Nain, and Watteau.
Picasso's painting was inspired by a group of performers he and his colleagues befriended at the Cirque Medrano, which had quarters near the artist's Paris studio in Montmartre. Picasso was particularly drawn to the circus people, many of whom were his Spanish countrymen. Their agility and pursuit of the art of illusion delighted him, and their gypsylike lives touched the artist, who himself searched for new horizons.
Picasso identified most closely with the clowns, those performers who masked their true selves with costumes and makeup. In fact, Picasso portrayed himself as the harlequin in a diamond-patterned costume in Family of Saltimbanques. The jester and the acrobats are lost in their own thoughts and glance toward the woman, who sits alone, while the harlequin reaches out to the child behind his back. In his deft representations of the various figures, Picasso manages to portray not only the lifestyle of the real saltimbanques but also the apparent melancholy mood of his friends and the collective alienation of this group.
Picasso's huge canvas was a considerable investment for the struggling artist and may explain why he repainted the subject at least four times, one on top of the other. X-radiography reveals the figures positioned differently in earlier versions. Some of Picasso's changes, including the woman's shoulders and hat, the color of the child's ballet slippers, the red jester's missing leg, and the harlequin's top hat, emerge as ghostlike outlines (pentimenti) in the final painting.
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