Artist: Pablo Picasso (Spanish, Malaga 1881–1973 Mougins, France)
Medium: Oil on canvas, lined and mounted to a sheet of pressed cork
Dimensions: 32 3/4 x 24 1/8 in. (83.2 x 61.3 cm)
Credit Line: Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb Gift, 1960
Accession Number: 60.87
Rights and Reproduction: © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This early masterpiece by Picasso represents the first appearance of this theatrical character in his work. By 1905, such clowns frequently inhabited his Rose Period pictures of itinerant circus families. In the late 1910s and 1920s, the image of the harlequin was transformed through the fractured planes of Analytic Cubism. Here, however, the broad, flat planes of color and thickly outlined shapes show a decorative, even Fauvist, influence. This picture is also an early example of what is termed Picasso's Blue Period, in which he uses blue and cool tones to create austere, melancholy images. Most often Picasso's works from this period portray social outcasts from the city's streets and cafés: beggars, prostitutes, the blind, and itinerant families.
While the harlequin in this early composition is dressed in whiteface and a conventional parti-colored unitard, his averted gaze and contemplative, melancholy demeanor are in marked contrast to his traditional role as a clown. Holding two fingers to his cheek, he rather epitomizes the thoughtful introvert. The café setting, enlivened with bold floral wallpaper and accoutrements for smoking, further heightens his isolation from his surroundings and from everyday pleasures. Here, as elsewhere, Picasso has revealed the private sadness behind the public face of this character—an interpretation that has greater resonance when one considers that the artist often regarded his clowns as representations of his alter ego. Painted in Paris in the autumn of 1901, the somber mood of this picture might reflect Picasso's own profound feelings after the recent suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.