Picasso’s Blue Period – 1901-1904
At around 1901, Picasso’s canvasses took on a deep and significant change in tone. Instead of the bright mixtures of colours that he used to paint in, his paintings took on monochromatic hues of blue and blue-green with very occasional warm colours. The subject matter for this period were poor people of the streets – beggars, prostitutes, drunks and poor gaunt people. He also depicted old and sick people and despairing lovers. The paintings showed themes of alienation, poverty and psychological depression. The mood of the paintings were somber and were influenced by his time in Spain, a visit to the Saint Lazare women’s prison and also the suicide of his friend Casagemas.
The suicide of his friend and the poorer circumstances he found himself in lent itself to the new way that Picasso saw other people. Instead of painting crowded scenes of people enjoying themselves, he instead started to look on people with sympathy and his paintings showed this. There is a tenderness in the way that that Picasso portrayed his subjects – they were people of the street belonging to no particular era living a melancholy life – hence the unending, depressing and silent blue backgrounds. The figures that he painted were reminiscent of El Greco and his use of Mannerism. However Picasso took it and treated it with more tenderness – the figures are gaunt and slender and Picasso’s treatment makes the observer feel a melancholic tenderness towards them.
Casegemas was in love with a model named Germaine, and when she refused him, he took a gun to his head in front of his friends. Picasso made several gloomy posthumous portraits of Casagemas, culminating in the painting in 1903 La Vie.
La Vie was a major composition and although looks very simple and straight forward, has a very complex message. There are two groups of people with what looks to be two sketches in the background. The left group are a young nude couple who look intimate and yet are not. The young man was modelled on his dead friend and the woman is Germaine whom Picasso had an affair with after his friend’s death. The right group consists of a clothed woman holding a baby. One of the sketches in the background shows a desolate figure with his head on his knees and another is someone comforting a tragic figure. The picture may represent the different stages in life, or may represent Picasso’s own life, the figures do not seem to associate with each other and look at odds with each other. In initial sketches for this painting, he painted himself as the young man with a bearded man (identified as Fontbona) entering on the right. The two background paintings were actually artists sketches or drawings on easels.
Other famous paintings he made in this period include:
Woman in Blue (Mujer en Azul/ Femme en Bleu) 1901 – submitted to the Exposicion General de Bellas Artes. The woman’s expressive eyes and exuberant dress is painted on a very dark background of green and blue makes this a very striking painting and very lifelike.
Child with Dove 1901 – a very tender and simple painting – one of the first Blue Period paintings and shows how sympathetically the artist deals with the subject matter.
The Tragedy (La Tragedia) 1903 – This picture depicts a family of three at what looks to be a beach-like background all in shades of blue. The title says it all in this picture and the figures are all bent in sorrow. The large blocks of blue gives the painting a very cold feeling – one can almost feel the cold wind and water in this picture.
Burial of Casagemas 1901 – this is a painting depicting the burial and the ascension of Casagemas’ soul. The canvas is split in half horizontally, the top half representing the heavenly realm and the bottom the earthly realm. This painting may have been inspired by El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz. The top half depicts Casagemas riding away on a white horse with a nude woman while children, other nudes and prostitutes look on, the bottom shows the grieving friends and family burying the body.
The Frugal Repast (Le Repas d’Aeugle) 1904 – Shows a blind man and a woman seated at a bare table.
The Old Guitarist (Le Vieux Guitariste Aveugle) 1903 – a very famous and well-known painting from this period and depicts an old guitarist – inspired by El Greco’s Mannerist treatment.
The Absinthe Drinker 1901 – a very stark and cold piece – even though it has a warm background. The woman is painted especially angular with a stony face reflected in the glass on the table. She has her elbows on the table and wraps her arms about looking isolated and protective of herself. Her hands are particularly long and talon-like and the stark contrast between the background colour and the subject gives it an even colder and flatter two-dimensional feel.
Picasso also painted many portraits of his friends at the Els Quatre Gats as well as workmanlike ones of high society women during this period and his reputation grew.
Although Picasso’s paintings from his Blue Period are quite popular now, they were not so at the time that he painted them. In 1902, Picasso found life very difficult and shared a flat in Paris with Max Jacob. He was so poor, that he couldn’t afford to buy canvas and therefore could only draw on paper. It was mentioned that he may have had to burn some of his canvasses to keep warm! It was around this period in his career that he started to sign his canvasses as simply “Picasso” instead of his full name.