It is a series of paintings where shades of blue dominate every piece and the mood that pervades these works is one of profound melancholy.
While they may seem at times bleak and sentimental, in all actuality, the paintings created during Picasso's Blue Period are deeply poetic expressions of poverty, fragility, severe depression, and vulnerability.
Many of the subjects are the poor and broken outcasts of society. The paintings in this series are sombre, yet contain endless layers of beauty and humanity within.
Taking into consideration all of the various phases of Picasso's evolution as an artist, it could be argued that no other period in Pablo Picasso's long and fascinating career contain as much emotional weight and human complexity in quite the same way Picasso's Blue Period (1901-1904).
It would be a very unusual thing to encounter a person who had never heard of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The works of Picasso are so widespread around the world, and his influence so immense, that most people have certain images come to mind when they hear the name Pablo Picasso.
Often, the images conjured up in the imagination may be surreal, cubist portraits of various objects and interesting faces. For many, they might think of the famous painting, Guernica, from 1937. Others still may think of something from before that Cubist period.
Something lighter, and softer, such as one of the many works from Picasso's Rose Period (1904-1906) when he painted such notable works as Boy with a Pipe in 1905 (Garçon à la pipe) and his Portrait of Gertrude Stein in 1906.
The precise time and place at which the Blue Period began is uncertain. However, what is known is that its beginnings occur at roughly the same time that Picasso experienced a personal trauma which provoked a deep and long-lasting depression. The Blue Period started either in Spain during the Spring of 1901, or perhaps in Paris later that same year. In February of 1901, Pablo Picasso was in the midst of a journey through Spain, and his close friend, Spanish art student and poet Carlos Casagemas was at L’Hippodrome Café in Paris.
The two young men had been traveling together, but Casagemas returned to Paris alone, heartbroken because of his unrequited love for a married woman named Germaine Gargallo Florentin. One night in Paris, while having dinner with Germaine and some a group of friends at L'Hippodrome, Casagemas lost himself in liquor. At around nine o'clock that evening, he pulled out a revolver and shot Germaine before turning the gun on himself and shooting himself in the head. Luckily, the bullet only grazed Germaine's temple and she survived. Carlos Casagemas, only 20 years old, did not.
Even though Picasso himself was not present at the horrific event that took place at L'Hippodrome Café that night, the incident left him shaken, and the tragic loss of his friend had a significant impact on his art in the days and months that followed. Picasso returned to Paris and sank into a deep depression. He slept in the room where Casagemas stayed, spent time with the same group of friends, and even became romantically involved with Germaine.
There was no way to escape constant reminders of his lost friend. A dramatic change emerged in his work. He was later quoted as saying, "When I realized Casagemas was dead, I started to paint in blue." Picasso created several monochromatic paintings in various shades of blue, sporadically warmed by other colours. While these blue-toned pieces were a strong and clear reflection of inner anguish, they also offered a glimpse into something else.
Many of Picasso's Blue Period works are stark depictions of society's forgotten or discarded members, many of which he gathered from the prisons, streets, and gutters of Paris; beggars, street urchins, and prostitutes. One experience which had a strong influence on his Blue Period works was a visit to a women's prison. Many of the subjects are lone figures: solitary mothers, the old, frail, blind, and emaciated. Yet many others are posthumous depictions of his dearly departed friend, Carlos Casagemas.
The Death of Casagemas (La mort de Casagemas) was painted in 1901, therefore belonging to Picasso's Blue Period, but lacking the dominant, stark blue variations. However, as the viewer gazes upon the face of poor Casagemas at rest in his coffin, the emotional resonance is almost palpable. The bereavement and horror that the artist is attempting to process and exorcise with his art is unmistakable. While many of the paintings with stronger blue tones convey a sort of quiet mourning, The Death of Casagemas is a loud and anguished cry of grief.
In another oil painting from that same year, Evocation, The Burial of Casagemas, the colour blue has taken over the canvas. Two scenes are taking place within this painting. At the bottom half, is the mundane, earthly rite of a burial. Casagemas, being interred into the ground, is surrounded by mourners. Their bodies are slouched, folded, some hold their faces in their hands while others embrace one another in the familiar physical expressions of grief. Above, the heavens open to welcome Casagemas. A crucified rider on horseback, symbolic of the soul's ascension, soars across the scene, drawing the viewer's eye to the bright white horse. It's a moving expression of the artist's last wishes for his friend who has passed on.
Several of the Blue Period works memorialise Casagemas, but perhaps the most challenging and mesmerizing of these is La Vie, or The Life, painted in 1903. Entirely composed in varying blue hues, a woman cradles an infant while facing a nude young woman embracing a man, who is a representation of Casagemas. Two paintings are visible in the background, one depicting a couple in distress, and another below of a lone, crumpled man, evidently the artist himself. Casagemas steps forward, one hand gesturing toward the child. While Picasso never made an effort to have the painting understood, stating that "A painting, for me, speaks by itself, what good does it do, after all, to impart explanations?" yet, there are some aspects of the piece that can be clearly identified. Casagemas is active, gesturing, and communicating. He has a lover in the nude woman holding him close. There are images of closeness and familial love, as though the artist may have been imagining a different outcome for his friend, one with lovers and family, and life.
Another of Picasso's most famous works from the Blue Period is the painting, The Old Guitarist (1903). Sorrowful and monochromatic, The Old Guitarist depicts a thin, haggard man hunched over his large guitar. The brown colour of the instrument is the only contrast against the blue that dominates the rest of the canvas. Perhaps this could suggest that the guitar, standing out from the rest of the scene, is a bright spot, a means of solace in the lonely man's life. The old man's eyes are closed, suggesting blindness. Yet, it also symbolic of an aversion to viewing the world in the usual way, as though this beggar, with his music, possesses a vision that extends beyond the mundane world. Blindness, or seemingly blind individuals who were marginalized or in some way enduring deprivation are a common theme running throughout Picasso's Blue Period works. Paintings such as The Blind Man's Meal (1903) and The Frugal Repast (1904) explore moods and imagery similar to The Old Guitarist.
One feature that is interesting to note about The Old Guitarist is the ghostly visage of a woman just above the guitarist's ear. Through the blue-grey shades of the old man's hair, she appears, vaguely. This is actually a remnant of an abandoned Picasso work that he painted over. The phantom image prompted further examination, and it was then x-rayed, discovering that a portrait of a seated young woman nursing an infant was hiding beneath the oil paint that brought The Old Guitarist into being.
While Casagemas in His Coffin marked the beginning of Picasso's Blue Period, it could be argued that The Old Guitarist is the most iconic of this phase in the artist's career. It perfectly represents the monochromatic blue that was the hallmark of this period, but also the mood and subject matter; the flattened forms, the sympathetic portrayal of the downtrodden, finding humanity and beauty in subjects that many members of society would have deemed ugly or forgettable carries a great emotional resonance. And for Picasso himself, this piece may have held a particular significance as well, as it marked a turning point in his career some years later. In 1926, The Old Guitarist was acquired by an American museum in Chicago, making it the first museum acquisition of a Picasso painting by any museum in the world for a permanent collection. Thankfully, it was only the first of many.
Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Pablo Picasso produced various self-portraits throughout his career. All of these likenesses are remarkable to study, as each one reveals a progression not only in artistic style and maturity, but a similar evolution within the artist himself as a human being. Self Portrait 1901 provides a glimpse at Picasso during the beginning of the Blue Period. If this period began with The Death of Casagemas, it could also be said that the period was built upon the foundation of this self portrait.
In this painting, we are looking at a young man at the age of 20 years old. However, the appearance seems to be that of a much older man. The high collar of his winter coat is buttoned up tight all the way to his face. His face is pale and gaunt, the expression underneath his scraggly beard intensely sombre. The portrait conveys the bleakness of his life during this era; the poverty, bereavement, and the harsh, cold, Parisian winter. Picasso exposes and lays bare his difficulties and emotional distress, yet maintains a distinctive air of dignity, in spite of the loneliness and sadness he carries.
What Pablo Picasso achieved during his Blue Period was something that at the time, was completely unprecedented. All of his paintings from 1901-1903 seemed almost as though he had begun to view the world through azure-tinted glasses. This was the result of an exercise in creating scenes in low-light conditions, but this colouring and shading also creates a macabre mystique within the paintings, imparting a sense of death and melancholy. Over the course of his lifetime, Picasso created paintings and other works of art in varying styles. Many can be grouped together based upon mood, colour scheme, subject matter, use of space, and composition, but no other grouping stands out more than those belonging to the Blue Period. While he was often able to emulate the work of those artists that he admired, such as El Greco, or Van Gogh, Picasso still managed to produce wholly original works of art. This ability to imitate styles and methods of other painters while creating his own ground breaking work was a trait unique to Picasso.
By 1904, Picasso's evolution as an artist had entered into a new phase, and his Rose Period began, which lasted until 1906. It was at this time that his paintings began to take on a brighter, more cheerful tone. In contrast to the moods, colour, and subject matter of his Blue Period paintings, Picasso's Rose Period depicted clowns, acrobats, harlequins, and circus performers. This array of comedic characters are rendered in warm tones of orange and pink. At the beginning of the Rose Period, Picasso entered into a relationship with a bohemian artist by the name of Fernande Olivier. This lighter tone and style was not only heavily influenced by the warmth of his romantic relationship, but was also a reflection of his life in Paris at the time, which was bustling and alive with colourful, bohemian circus culture. In fact, countless remnants of those Rose Period characters and Picasso's creative, bohemian Paris (the area of Montmartre, especially) can still be seen today while strolling the rues.
One might imagine the Picasso's deep depression that inspired his Blue Period had come to and end with the start of the Rose Period. Sadly, this is not the case, as his melancholic emotional state lasted for quite some time, not fully dissipating until sometime near the start of his Cubism Period. While one can only imagine the intensity of his mourning and anguish from viewing the series of paintings belonging to Picasso's Blue Period, there is still something universal in the images rendered in those gloomy shades of blue that just about everyone can relate to. The feelings of loss and loneliness can be understood by anyone. Not only do these paintings speak to individual sadness, but the pathos depicted in the images of beggars, prostitutes, and poor, blind, despairing people are a stark mirror of the time that Picasso was living in, and though he likely didn't predict it, the downtrodden that still exists in shades of blue today.