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Portrait of Pere Mañach, 1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

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Like all artists, Picasso often created sketches, drawings, and paintings that featured the people with whom he associated. The subject of this portrait -- Pere Mañach -- was no exception.

Like so many of Picassos friends, Mañach was a Catalan, a native of Catalonia in northern Spain. Even though Picasso was born in the southern Spanish town of Málaga, he claimed he was Catalan in spirit, if not in birth. Mañach had moved to Paris after a quarrel with his father. He became a dealer in modern Spanish art. A mutual acquaintance introduced the two. Mañach was particularly impressed with Picassos paintings of bullfighting, and agreed to take Picasso under his wing. He would pay the artist 150 francs a month for all the paintings Picasso could supply. It was a perfect arrangement in many ways: Picasso got a guaranteed source of income, and Mañach got Picassos work, which, at first, sold quite quickly. Unfortunately, the arrangement did not last long. The two parted company, and Mañach left Paris with his portrait safe in hand.

Mañach and Picasso shared a passion for bullfighting. In fact, this passion became the basis for this work. An infrared reflectogram (an image captured from a television monitor that has been adapted to display infrared radiation; it shows layers beneath the visible surface of a painting ) shows that Mañach was originally painted as a bullfighter, wearing the toreadors traditional traje de luces (suit of lights). When he changed the portrait to what we see today, Picasso painted over most of the elements of this costume, but left the bright orange tie the way it was. The tie looks very much like a corbata, which was part of the traje, and is much narrower than those worn in everyday dress at the time. One other element from the underpainting that Picasso retained was Mañachs stance, which is almost identical to the pose commonly used to portray toreadors. 

Tragedy, 1903, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

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The thin, barefoot, shabbily clothed figures in this composition and its subdued tones are characteristic of the work Picasso created during his Blue period. Its sense of alienation mirrors the physical and emotional world of this young artist, living in poverty, a foreigner in Paris.

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; in a time of few certainties the traditional role of the painter as storyteller was often put aside. The absence of this characteristic is, in fact, one of the things that mark this as a work of modern art. The man, the woman, and the child exemplify the depths of the human condition. The exact details of their despair are left to the observer.

The figures are carefully drawn, and the contours of their bodies reveal a great deal about their thoughts. 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.

 Information courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington


Le Gourmet (The Greedy Child), 1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

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This painting suggests the direction that Picassos art took between late 1901 and the middle of 1904. It anticipates his Blue Period, where his figures became tragic, his mood melancholy, and his style more expressive. Although blue is the predominant color of this work, it is a much brighter blue than those used in other paintings typical of this period of his art. It is an interesting companion work to use in examining Tragedy.

 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 of 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 childs humble condition. Gourmet is the French word for a lover of fine food.

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. This sense of unreality is greatly heightened by the pervasive blue tonality, which nearly overpowers every other color. In juxtaposition to this, the expression on the childs face is one of determination and absorption in the moment.

 Experts have found some similarity between this work and those completed by Paul Gauguin, whose art was often marked by intensity and simplicity.

 Information courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington


Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

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This scene of fairground performers was Picassos most significant work to date. The name of the painting comes from the Italian words saltare, meaning to leap, and banco, or bench, which referred to the portable stage on which these acrobats usually performed. Saltimbanques were the lowest order of acrobats; Picasso pictured them as vagabonds with simple props in an empty, desert-like landscape.

Picassos painting was inspired by a group of performers he and his colleagues befriended at Cirque Médrano, which had quarters near the artists studio in Montmartre. Picasso was particularly drawn to circus people, many of whom were his Spanish countrymen. Their agility and pursuit of the art of illusion delighted him, and their gypsy-like 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 a harlequin in a diamond-patterned costume in this work. The jester and the acrobats seem 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 of his friends and the collective alienation of this group.

Picassos huge canvas (833/4 x 90 ) was a considerable investment for the struggling artist, and may explain why he repainted the subject at least four times, one on the top of the other. X-radiography reveals the figures positioned differently in earlier versions. Some of Picassos changes, including the womans shoulders and hat, the color of the girls ballet slippers, the red jesters missing leg, and the harlequins top hat, emerge as ghost-like outlines (pentimenti) in the final painting.

Art experts also feel that Picasso regarded his art as fluid, and often reworked canvasses for the sake of the painting alone, not the money invested in the canvas. In other paintings, such as Tragedy, which had several underpaintings of at least two bullfight scenes, Picasso incorporated textures and shapes from these underpaintings into the work we see today.

 Information courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington


Self-Portrait with Palette , 1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Galletin Collection

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This painting, and many others created during the Gósol period, marked a turning point in Picasso's art. His works became more straightforward, more pure, more primitive, finding definition in round, simplified forms, oval faces, and ocher and pink tones.

 For this portrait, Picasso chose to depict himself as a working man in an undershirt, confidently facing the world. Instead of using a dazzling effect of light and color, Picasso has pared down this painting to the essentials: painting flatly, with a minimal use of color and modeling. In the studies he created in preparation to do this work, he drew himself holding a paintbrush. However, in the painting, the brush is replaced by his fist. The silhouetted pose he chose is reminiscent of that he used in his Portrait of Pere Mañach. Through these effects, Picasso emerges as the confident challenger, embodying a new persona described by Leo Stein in a telling episode. Picasso was fed up with waiting in a bus line, and tried to push his way to the head of the queue. Enraged when people told him to get back in line, he said, "This is not the way it should be. The strong should go ahead and take what they want." The determined artist that emerged from Gósol was prepared to go even further in his art, breaking through to the innovations of cubism and beyond.

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