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Curator Interview: Picasso's Seated Harlequin


Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). Seated Harlequin, 1901. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb Gift, 1960 (60.87). © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The signature image of the exhibition Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (closing August 15) is the Seated Harlequin, a masterpiece painted by Picasso when he was just nineteen years old. Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, spoke with me about the painting's imagery and style, as well as recent discoveries made by Metropolitan Museum conservators.

Jennette Mullaney: Seated Harlequin reminds one of works by many artists, such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin.

Gary Tinterow: It's so interesting that Picasso had an extraordinary ability to absorb the work of other people around him and to respond almost instantaneously to his environment. So it is typical of him that when he arrived in Paris in 1901 and stayed in Montmartre, which was plastered with posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret, he immediately incorporated that visual imagery, that vocabulary, and even the stylistic syntax of those works into his own pictures. [Editor's note: See "The Lure of Montmartre, 1880–1900" on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.]

Jennette Mullaney: Picasso produced an extraordinary number of works throughout his long career. Seated Harlequin is one of his earlier works. Are there aspects of this painting that Picasso revisits in later works?

Gary Tinterow: One could say that as a human being, he is who he is throughout his entire life: certain mannerisms or nearly automatic responses are going to be present continuously throughout his career. But if one is asking about expressive deformation to create a specific style, it's something he understood very early on. Or if one is asking about the practical aspects of composing an image, this is something he learned at his father's knees. Before he was a teenager he had rudimentary knowledge of composition, drawing, and the practical aspects of image-making.

What's interesting to me is that, with Picasso, there is, in the midst of the extraordinary stylistic variety of his entire career and the multiplicity of themes and modes of expression, there is an underlying predilection for placing his subject, whether it's a bowl of fruit or a figure or a building, at the center of his composition. It's as if he starts with one thing—a person or still-life elements—and puts it smack at the crosshairs of whatever support he's working on. Then everything is elaborated from that first thought, gesture, or impulse.

Jennette Mullaney: The Conservation Department has looked extensively at all of our works by Picasso. What did you discover about this picture from their findings?

Gary Tinterow: We see a few changes that, on the one hand, are absolutely banal, such as a tall drinking glass at the right which was turned into a small match striker instead. On the other hand, some costume elements that were altered may hint at one of the underlying meanings of the picture. Initially his Harlequin had his bicorn hat to the left-hand side of the picture, sitting on the banquette, and his tight-fitting leotard had no ruffles at neck or wrists. Those ruffles are traditionally a component of Pierrot's costume. Pierrot was the sad clown who was constantly frustrated because Harlequin—the nimble, randy Harlequin—would, by play's end, succeed in stealing the pretty maid Columbine from Pierrot. Hence, Pierrot was always sad and Harlequin was always the lusty victor.

And although in this early representation of Harlequin Picasso does not give him his own facial features, we may have the beginnings of self-identification, especially placed against the central drama of Picasso's life at this moment. His friend Carlos Casagemas had committed suicide because his love for a woman named Germaine was unrequited. At the time this picture was made, Picasso was sleeping with his best friend's former lover, Germaine. And so the lusty Harlequin here has aspects of the sad clown Pierrot, and Picasso develops in his art a new figure—the sad or pensive Harlequin—who had not been part of the traditional repertoire of the commedia dell'arte. Tellingly, four years later, while Picasso was at the beginning of a major love affair with Fernande Olivier, he placed Germaine at the side of Harlequin in the painting At the Lapin Agile. In that painting, Picasso gave the acrobat his own features. With Picasso, there is always another level of suggested meaning to explore.

Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.

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