Painting of the Day

29 Mar

La Vie. by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 1903. Currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Notes from

In 1901, depressed over the suicide of a close friend, Picasso launched into the melancholic paintings of his Blue Period (1901-4). Only 20 years old and desperately poor, he restricted his palette to cold colors suggestive of night, mystery, dreams, and death. His obsession with themes of human misery and social alienation reached its climax with this painting. The subject has been interpreted variously as an allegory of sacred and profane love, a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, and a working-class couple facing the hazards of real life.

Additional notes from

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”–Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period refers to a series of paintings in which the color blue dominates and which he painted between 1901 and 1904. The blue period is a marvelous expression of poetic subtlety and personal melancholy and contributes to the transition of Picasso’s style from classicism to abstract art.
As one of the founders of modern abstract art, Pablo Picasso is generally associated with cubism and related styles which are predominantly abstract. It is therefore essential to realize that at the time of Picasso’s blue period, abstract art as we know it today didn’t yet exist. As a twenty year old man Pablo Picasso was an accomplished classicist painter, but like many young artists of his time, he was dissatisfied with the dogmas of traditional art. Predecessors like Cézanne and the impressionists had shown how departures from classicism could result in a more direct visual language. And to a great extent Picasso and his contemporaries were experiencing the after-shock of an artistic eruption called Vincent Van Gogh, which hurdled an astonished art world into the 20th century and towards abstract art. Inspired by a tradition that had grown suspicious of classicism, the blue period marks the end of a development in which the young Pablo Picasso is trying to formulate his pictorial means that solve the problems and limitations of classicism and would eventually culminate in cubism and the first steps towards modern abstract art.
On an emotional note, melancholy and resignation best characterize Picasso’s blue period. When Picasso’s close friend Carlos Casagemas commits suicide, Picasso’s trauma finds expression in a series of deeply sentimental paintings which comprise his blue period.

In October 1900, at the age of 19, Pablo Picasso moved to Paris, in the company of Carlos Casagemas. They had known each other since 1899, having met at the Els Quatre Gats café in Barcelona, which was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Picasso’s early days in Paris are characterized by poverty, which may have contributed to the melancholy of his blue period paintings, but it’s certain that the sadness of his blue period paintings alienated potential buyers of his art work and thus, in turn, contributed to his poverty. While his time in Paris is of fundamental importance to his artistic development during the blue period, Picasso spent most of his time in Barcelona, until in 1904 he moved to Paris definitively. While Casagemas takes his own life in Paris, Picasso is in Spain.
The death of Casagemas painting testifies of Picasso’s shock and horror over the suicide of his friend. In the sense of Picasso dealing with his trauma this painting belongs to the blue period, but it doesn’t have the atmosphere of resignation and silent mourning that his blue paintings would have.

Pablo Picasso blue period - Evocation, the burial of CasagemasPablo Picasso blue period - Evocation, the burial of Casagemas


Possibly in the tradition of marrying the divine to the profane the lower half of the Evocation – the burial of Casagemas painting shows a burial, while the upper half may represent how these two young men envisaged heaven: plenty of scarcely dressed women and a mother with children.

Pablo Picasso blue period, LifePablo Picasso blue period, Life


This theme returns in one of Picasso’s last blue period paintings, called Life. Casagemas had shot himself in a Parisian café after having been refused by a woman he was in love with. The Life painting shows Casagemas, again with a lover and a mother with child, but this time Picasso shows a Casagemas who is alive, the faces of the company of people still melancholic, but the left leg of Casagemas treading forward and a left finger pointing upward, showing an undefeated Casagemas. It seems that his painting marks the end of Picasso’s trauma and his blue period. The main theme of both Evocation – the burial of Casagemas and Life is that they contain Picasso’s best wishes for his friend and may be related to the the reason of Casagemas’ suicide: in both paintings Casagemas is surrounded by lovers and the family that Picasso would have wished him.
Picasso’s depression didn’t end with the beginning of his rose period, which succeeded the blue period and in which the color pink dominates in many of his paintings. In fact, it lasted until the end of his cubist period (which followed the rose period) and only in the period thereafter, which was his neo-classicist period, did Picasso’s work begin the show the playfulness that would remain a prominent feature of his work for the rest of his life. Picasso’s contemporaries didn’t even distinguish between a blue and a rose period but regarded the two as one single period.

Pablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Jaime SabartésPablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Jaime Sabartés

Portrait of Jaime Sabartés

A very interesting trait of Picasso was the way in which he was able to emulate the styles and methods of other painters and as such create paintings that were still original.

Pablo Picasso blue period, the absinthe drinkerPablo Picasso blue period, the absinthe drinker

The Absinthe Drinker

The influence of Van Gogh is clearly visible in The Death of Casagemas, as well as in Portrait of Jaime Sabartés (The beer glass) with their heavily textured impasto, dark contours and contrasting colors. The accuracy with which Picasso reproduces the style of Gauguin in The Absinthe Drinker is uncanny, but he adds his own subtle Picasso line. Picasso would continue to occasionally emulate the styles of other artists, but these paintings never raise the impression that Picasso tried to appropriate the style and deny its source – he simply enjoyed to imitate other artists, like an actor.

Pablo Picasso blue period, portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto

Mateu Fernandez de Soto

Portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto is again in Van Gogh’s style, with Picasso probably referring to the burial of Casagemas in the upper-right corner.
These paintings give a very vivid picture of the Montmartre nightlife, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a life style to which the young Pablo Picasso was no stranger.

Pablo Picasso blue period, two sisters (the meeting)Pablo Picasso blue period, two sisters (the meeting)

Two sisters (the meeting)

A significant influence on Picasso’s blue period paintings was his visit to a woman’s prison called St. Lazare in Paris, were nuns served as guards. The Two sisters in the painting on the right that bears the same name, were in fact a prisoner and a nun and the painting is an example of how Picasso used to mix daily reality with Christian iconography. The posture and gestures of the women were derived from the way artists depict the visitation, the color blue symbolizing Mary, the Mother of God. The meeting, or visitation, refers to the meeting between Mary, Mother of God and the mother of John the Baptist.
An ever returning theme in Picasso’s blue period (and also in his rose period) is the desolation of social outsiders, whether they be prisoners, beggars, circus people or poor or despairing people in general. Not only did this theme answer to his blue mood, but it also answered to the zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) of the artistic and intellectual avant garde at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The color blue

Some people believe that, by nature, man associates colors with emotions, the color blue being associated with melancholy. In the Anglo-Saxon culture blue is still interpreted as such and so it was in France during the nineteenth century when the color blue was particularly fashionable among artists and the general public. In Christian iconography blue represents the divine and in a rather more secular (non-religious) sense it stands for the super-natural as well as the erotic.
For Picasso the blue period was an exercise in painting scenes of low light conditions. He would borrow from the Spanish painter El Greco, the light-yellow, almost white, macabre skin color that adds to the mystique and sense of death of Picasso’s blue period paintings, see Two Sisters, above and Poor people on the seashore.
Although Picasso’s blue period melancholy was sincere, the people he painted have an element of pathos and melodrama. The reason for the starving artist myth having become so popular, is that intellectuals and artists at the beginning of the twentieth century would like to see themselves as such. To them an artist was a social outsider by definition and they would indulge in cultivated depression and romanticize their own supposed martyrdom. Typical of this is the comment of Picasso’s friend and poet Rainer Maria Rilke when he saw Picasso’s painting the acrobats (family of saltimbanques):But who, tell me, are these wanderers, who are yet more fugitive than we are…

My comments:

It’s interesting that the second set of notes says that the male figure in the painting is supposed to be Casagemas because in my Modern Art Class, we discussed that the likeness of the male figure’s face resembles that of Picasso. So either there are two competing ideas here, or they are existing together and Picasso is identifying himself with Casagemas. This could make sense, since Picasso actually had an affair with the woman who rejected Casagemas and caused his suicide. So it would be very interesting if Picasso was identifying himself with Casagemas in this way, because he is visually implying that he has replaced Casagemas and taken his spot next to his lover. I can’t believe that Picasso still chose to maintain his relationship with the woman that caused his friend to commit suicide; it seems incredibly cold and selfish, and I wonder if he would have felt so sad and been compelled to go through a Blue Period in his art if he had ended his relationship with her. Ironically, although they were caused by so much emotional turmoil and pain, I find these Blue Period paintings to be the best in Picasso’s whole career. Although he is most famous for the co-founding of Cubism and some of his more Surrealist paintings, I find the Blue Period paintings to be the most expressive and emotionally stirring by far. It’s not just because they are blue, a color traditionally associated with sadness. It’s not even just because all of his subjects in these paintings do not look particularly happy. I think the power of these artworks comes from the compositional arrangements, the shape relationships of the figures, the subtle blending of the different shades of blue, and the interaction of positive and negative space, as these formal elements are synthesized to create something incredibly beautiful.

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