Picasso: The Pivotal Blue, and Rose Periods

 Once he was a lonely, moody young man trying to figure out his place in the world. This is the Picasso that lost himself in his Blue, and Rose periods. Combined these two periods only last about five years, but when we view them together, we can see a young man trying to both purge his personal demons and discover who he was as an artist. Let’s take a look at Picasso’s journey as he transforms himself through his blue and pink periods by looking at the Blue Period: Tragedy 1903 and the Pink Period Girl on the Ball 1905.  We end at the beginnings of Cubism with a look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso c. 1907. 

Short Biographical Information

Photo of Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was born on October 25, 1881 in Málaga, Spain. (His Birth Certificate read: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Crispín Crispiniano María Remedios de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso.) His father was an artist, and professor at the local university. He taught Picasso how to paint. There was a rumor that when Picasso was 13 years old, he surpassed his father in talent. At this point, his father immediately handed over his brushes and paints to his son, and gave up painting forever. The veracity of this tale is questionable.  It is an undeniable fact, that Picasso’s family understood how to promote their artistic careers.

Paris and His Friend Carles Casagemas

Painting of Carles Casagemas
Carles Casagemas by Pablo Picasso c. 1900 courtesy Metropolitan Museum

Picasso’s first trip to Paris was in September of 1900. The artist was just shy of his 19th birthday. He traveled with a close friend, a Catalan artist, Carles Casagemas. He returned to Spain, but in April of 1901 Picasso found himself back in Paris in preparation for his first exhibition. His art from this period varied widely. He emulated the artists who influenced him. Artists like Degas and Lautrec who were still working. He spends his time painting scenes of daily life in Paris, at least the slices of daily life he is privy to. Canvases from this time include the denizens of Montmartre, courtesans and their dinner companions, and portraits like this one of Picasso’s roommate, agent, and benefactor “Pedro Mañach.” (National Gallery of Art, 1901) During this time Picasso also painted a set of bold self-portraits, the most famous of which he titles, “Yo, Picasso,” or as we would say in English, “I, Picasso.” While Picasso’s styles changed
from work to work, most his paintings were filled with an array of bright colors.

Portrait Pedro Mañach, by Pablo Picasso
Pedro Mañach, by Pablo Picasso c 1901 courtesy of National Gallery of Art
Women in the Loge by Pablo Picasso c. 1901 courtesy WickiArt.org

The Beginnings of the Blue Period

Picasso’s Blue Period begins suddenly in mid 1901. Late in life, Picasso would admit that this time was a direct response to the death of his friend, Carles Casagemas, who committed suicide in a Montmartre café possibly over a romantic rejection. While Picasso was not there, the death of his friend had a profound impact on Picasso’s work

During his Blue Period Picasso sought out moments of sadness to capture in paint. He aligned himself with the marginalized, the forgotten, and the outcasts, as if he was seeing them for the first time. He allowed his pain, and their suffering to combine, and flow off his canvases.

Le Gourmet by Pablo Picasso c 1901a
Le Gourmet by Pablo Picasso c 1901a

Close-up the Tragedy from the Blue Period

The Tragedy by Pablo Picasso c. 1903 Blue Period
The Tragedy by Pablo Picasso c. 1903 courtesy National Gallery of Art

Picasso’s Blue Period lasted from 1901-1904. “The Tragedy,” was created in 1903. The painting is typical of most the works that come from this period. It is completely monochromatic, meaning Picasso only used the color blue, mixed with white and black, to create the painting. The family is a unit, but each member is lost in their own pain. While we don’t know what has happened to this family, we can make our own assumptions by looking at their facial expressions, the empty beach location, and the threadbare and ill-fitting clothing on the man and boy.

Conservators have used this canvas to gain clues to Picasso’s painting process. Beneath “The Tragedy” they have found evidence of another painting that was originally a bull fighting scene. Picasso frequently reused and reworked his canvases. This process became a habit that he would continue for the rest of his artistic career.

The Rose Period

Rose Period Mother and Boy Sitting together
Tumblers (Mother and Son) by Pablo Picasso c. 1905 courtesy Staatsgaleria, Stuttgart

In 1904, Picasso began to add color back into his paintings. He no longer sought out beggars, invalids, and prisoners, but he does continue to focus on the outsider. He would also begin to slyly reinsert himself back into his paintings. The Rose Period is interchangeably called the Circus Period because Picasso focused heavily on circus performers. He frequented the Cirque Médrano, a longstanding circus in Montmartre. The saltimbanques, or foreign circus performers would pose for him. He probably felt a kinship with them. They were mostly Spanish, and outsiders. Picasso frequently inserts himself into his paintings as a harlequin. He will become synonymous with the harlequin for the rest of his career.

Close-Up: Girl on a Ball from the Puskin Museum

Girl practicing on ball with trainer looking on
Girl on A Ball by Pablo Picasso c. 1905 courtesy Puskin Museum

When we look at the Rose Period painting, “Girl on a Ball,” from 1905, we can see many differences from Picasso’s Blue Period. First, Picasso’s color palette has shifted from monochromatic to muted tones with an abundance of diluted pinks and oranges. Next, his backgrounds are completely nondescript. If Picasso was not using a barren wasteland as seen here, he would paint figures that rose out from a wash of color. His figures have no context to where they are, and they often have tenuous connections to each other. Look at the girl, and the acrobat in the foreground. They are both circus performers, and are linked by proximity, but they are both lost in their own thoughts, or actions. This can be seen again in the figures that congregate in the background. As viewers, we can infer that this is a mother with her two children with their dog, but other than the baby in her arms they do not touch. While family is hinted at, there is also a sense of aloneness too.

Takeaways from the Blue and Rose Periods

Picasso’s Rose Period officially ends in 1905, in two years he will create “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” a painting in sharp contrast to everything that has come before it. He will change the art world and influence artists for decades to come.
It is the Blue, and Rose Periods that have taught Picasso many of habits, and techniques that he will use for the rest of his artistic life. There will always be hints of the brash young artist who declared himself, “I Picasso,” but these tendencies have been tempered. It is the Blue, and Rose Periods that gave Picasso’s works heart, when the grief, and sadness he felt spilled onto his canvases, and gave voice to the downtrodden of the world.

Five Women Picasso Cubism Style
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso c. 1907 courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY
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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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