Where? Gallery 217C of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art
What do you see? A group of six saltimbanques (who are traveling circus artists) against a pale background with a cloudy blue sky. The people look somber and have little expression on their faces. Picasso intended to picture the isolation and melancholy of these people. The tall harlequin on the left probably represents Picasso. He wears a suit with diamond shapes on it. He holds one hand on his back, and with the other hand he holds a young girl with a basket of flowers. The obese man to the right of Picasso is a jester with the name Tio Pepe. He wears a bright red suit and a pointed jester hat and holds a bag over his shoulder. The young man to his left only wears his underwear and holds a drum on his shoulder. The boy to his left, wearing a colorful blue jacket, is a juggler. The woman on the right, with the bright orange-red skirt, probably represents the girlfriend of Picasso, Fernande Olivier. She wears a Mallorcan costume, and she has the same flowers on her head as the small girl has in her basket. To the left of the woman is a Spanish pitcher.
Backstory: Saltimbanques were traveling circus artists who could do a variety of tricks. The word saltimbanques literally means “somersault over a bench.” Picasso created this painting during five different stages over a period of nine months. He sought for perfection and was not happy with the work at the end of the first four stages. The people in this painting seem to resemble Picasso and some his friends in Paris. The men from left to right resemble Picasso, Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, and Max Weber, and the woman on the right Fernande Olivier. Picasso did not name the painting himself as he usually did not give titles to his work. In 1931, Chester Dale bought this painting and it went to the National Gallery of Art after his death in 1962.
What is the Rose Period? The Rose Period refers to the period between 1904 and 1906 in the career of Picasso. It follows the Blue Period, which was between 1901 and 1904. In the Blue Period, Picasso suffered from depression after the suicide of a good friend. He primarily used somber blue and blue-green colors and focused on painting themes like hopelessness, loneliness, and poverty. In 1904, Picasso got into a good relationship with Fernande Olivier and his style changed to more happy themes and colors. In the Rose Period, he primarily used colors like red, pink, and orange, and focused on themes like acrobats, clowns, and harlequins. His paintings during this period were mainly based on his intuition rather than the direct observation of the people he depicted. The harlequin dressed in clothes with a checkered pattern was a frequently returning figure in his works, just like you can see in this painting. Another example is At the Lapin Agile in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Picasso? His full name is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. He was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and died in 1972 in Mougins, France. When Picasso was 19 years old, he traveled to Paris, the art capital of Europe during that time. Over the next few years, he lived partly in Paris and partly in Barcelona. In Paris, he frequently visited the circus (sometimes multiple times per week) and the theater with friends and found his inspiration to paint circus artists. In 1905, he met Henri Matisse in Paris and they became friends for life. Picasso created many masterpieces and one of the most famous works he created, right after the Rose Period, is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Fun fact: The saltimbanques were considered to be the lowest in rank among all artists. They traveled around to earn some money here and there and typically stayed in poverty on the outskirts of a city. Picasso could identify with these saltimbanques as he also had no fixed place to stay in Paris in his first years there and he had also been struggling for recognition. Other painters, like Degas, Renoir, and Van Gogh, have also used the circus as inspiration for some of their works as they could also identify with that struggle for recognition at some points during their careers. For example, Degas painted in 1879 Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando which is now in the National Gallery in London.
Written by Eelco Kappe