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From the boards pale Harlequin
First salutes the spectators
Sorcerers from Bohemia
Fairies sundry enchanters

Guillaume Apollinaire, “Crépuscule,” written 1905 as “Spectacle,” published 1909 

Measuring 7 by 7.5 feet, Family of Saltimbanques is the most important painting Picasso made during his early career. Immediately obvious is the isolation and stillness of its figures. Shouldn’t these acrobats, dancers, and jesters suggest the frolic or at least the forced gaiety of circus performance?

That was not what Picasso had in mind. For him, these wandering saltimbanques stood for the melancholy of the neglected underclass of artistes, a kind of extended family with whom he identified. Like them, the Spanish-born Picasso was transient during his first years in Paris while striving for recognition. Eventually he found a dilapidated apartment in Montmartre, where he and his friends regularly attended the local Cirque Médrano’s performances. Picasso made many images of circus performers in 1904–1905, most of them representing couples with their babies and troupe animals, posed “portrait” images, and figures at practice.

Slideshow: Picasso's Images of Circus Perfomers 

The stark background he assigned to this work casts a haunting sense of loneliness on these vagabond performers. Its chalky, rose-blue palette may reference the colors of actual circus costumes of the time while setting a mood of ethereal sadness.

Landscape near Schoorl by Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Landscape near Schoorl, 1905. © Musee Picasso, Paris.

The background may have been inspired by the scruffy fairground areas on the fringes of Paris that had escaped the city’s long-standing campaign of upgrading, and by the wide, rolling sand dunes of coastal Holland, where he spent June and July of 1905 sketching two notebooks full of drawings related to the theme and setting of Family of Saltimbanques.











Family of Saltimbanques pays tribute to the circus’s stock players while also serving as autobiography. The dark, brooding silhouette of Harlequin—in diamond-printed costume, far left—is the dark, intense young artist himself.

The original tonality of this painting was bluish. Scientific study has revealed three other states of this image under its final version. In them, Picasso altered figures and composition and switched from blue to rose, consciously allowing the darker paint to show through as he reworked his canvas. In this way, he created contour as well as a dusky, veiled atmosphere worthy of his waif-like figures.

Pablo Picasso Self-Portrait, 1901/1902

Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait, 1901/1902.

About the Artist

After shattering representational tradition through cubism, which he developed with Georges Braque, Picasso became the artistic visionary against whom most others measured their creativity throughout the 20th century.

The son of an artist, Picasso attended art schools in his native Spain and in his late teens aligned his sensibilities with bohemian writers and artists in Barcelona and Madrid who opposed Spain’s stalled social hierarchies and conservative culture.

After early work inspired by international models—the anguished, attenuated figures of El Greco, the dark, moody outlines of symbolism, and the sinuous curvatures of art nouveau to name a few—Picasso began to find his own vision. The art he made in the decade between 1905 and 1915 unleashed a torrent of originality—Rose and Blue Period pieces that probe the emotional depths of his personal experiences and identity; masklike portraits and heavily faceted nudes that translate classical and primal aspects of ancient, Iberian, and African cultures, culminating in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); and the cubist and collage works which, in their fragmentation of illusionism, delivered Picasso’s breakthrough.    

Pablo Picasso, 1932 by Man Ray

Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1932.

Over a long lifetime Picasso was famously productive. In the decades following 1915, he incorporated decorativeness into cubism and explored wide-ranging concepts—especially the erotic abandon espoused by the surrealists—in an astounding array of mediums: costume and theatre design, sculpture, ceramics, prints, watercolors, paintings, and public commissions. In his works on paper Picasso created a trove of prints and drawings in which mythology and the sexy beast Minotaur (his alter ego) figure prominently. He also worked on suites of images exploring the elements of creative practice: the artist’s studio and the relationship of artist and model.

In his last decades Picasso took on the great masters—pitting his print, watercolor, and painted works against signature images by Nicolas Poussin, Louis Le Nain, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Édouard Manet, and others—just as artists who followed Picasso would test themselves against his example. Pablo Ruiz Picasso died in 1972 at age 91.

Crépuscule, a poem by Picasso's friend and writer Guillaume Apollinaire

During his early years in Paris Picasso was so close to his writer and poet friends that he penned “Au Rendez-vous des poètes” on the door of his Montmartre apartment. Here, the poem Crépuscule (Twilight) by Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and writer as well as Picasso’s friend, artistic champion, and fellow spectator at performances of the Cirque Medrano.

Brushed by the shadows of the dead
On the grass where day expires
Columbine strips bare admires
her body in the pond instead

A charlatan of twilight formed
Boasts of the tricks to be performed
The sky without a stain unmarred
Is studded with the milk-white stars

From the boards pale Harlequin
First salutes the spectators
Sorcerers from Bohemia
Fairies sundry enchanters

Having unhooked a star
He proffers it with outstretched hand
While with his feet a hanging man
Sounds the cymbals bar by bar

The blind man rocks a pretty child
The doe with all her fauns slips by
The dwarf observes with saddened pose
How Harlequin magically grows

Translation by A. S. Kline (c) 2002 All Rights Reserved

Frôlée par les ombres des morts
Sur l'herbe où le jour s'exténue
L'arlequine s'est mise nue
Et dans l'étang mire son corps

Un charlatan crépusculaire
Vante les tours que l'on va faire
Le ciel sans teinte est constellé
D'astres pâles comme du lait

Sur les tréteaux l'arlequin blême
Salue d'abord les spectateurs
Des sorciers venus de Bohême
Quelques fées et les enchanteurs

Ayant décroché une étoile
Il la manie à bras tendu
Tandis que des pieds un pendu
Sonne en mesure les cymbales

L'aveugle berce un bel enfant
La biche passe avec ses faons
Le nain regarde d'un air triste
Grandir l'arlequin trismégiste

Related Resources

  • In-depth Feature: Picasso’s painting The Tragedy and related conservation issues
  • Slideshow: Picasso: The Early Years - survey of Picasso's art before cubism (middle school and high school)
  • Audio: Picasso: The Saltimbanques - chronicles the scientific study that revealed three iterations of this image which together comprise the artist’s final painting
  • Podcast Series: Picasso and Truth - a six part series of lectures by art historian and professor T. J. Clark