The Old Guitarist is one of the most haunting pieces created during Pablo Picasso’s blue period. Depicting a haggard, blind guitar player, the piece encompasses Picasso’s fascination with the societal outcasts he saw when traveling through Spain. Picasso’s blue period was heralded as a turning point in his career, demonstrating his capability of capturing raw emotion and preserving it on canvas. Singulart examines the origins of Picasso’s blue period, as well as the secrets that have been revealed in The Old Guitarist since its creation.
Picasso’s Blue Period
Between 1901 and 1904, Picasso created pieces that were blue or blue-green hued, only occasionally diverting from this palette. Picasso was inspired by the people he saw when travelling through Spain: the drunks, the prostitutes, the destitute, and the beggars. Picasso returned to Paris to begin working on these paintings, but was rocked by the death of his friend Carles Casagemas, who shot himself at Paris’ L’Hippodrome Café after being spurned by a lover. Picasso would later say, “I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’s death.”
Although it is not in the typical blue/green tones associated with his blue period, it is believed that the origins of the period lie within a painting directly referencing Casagemas’s suicide, The Death of Casagemas. Casagemas is portrayed looking almost peaceful, painted in a blue-tinged green in front of a rich, rust colored background. However, Picasso included the bullet wound at Casagemas’s temple, showing the tragedy behind the painting.
After 1901, Picasso was plagued by depression. It was during this time that he continued his blue period with Self Portrait, in which Picasso has painted himself looking desolate, with an unkempt beard and hardened expression. Although he had experimented with the blue palette in The Death of Casagemas, this is generally accepted as the first painting of the blue period series.
Picasso was particularly taken with painting subjects that were cast out by society. In Celestina he depicts an old woman with a cloudy eye, and although she is dressed in somber clothing she still gives an air of regalness. In Femme aux Bras Croisés, it is believed that the woman in the artwork is a patient at a mental institution, perhaps Saint-Lazare; she has a vaguely menacing stare and a troubled expression.
Perhaps the most famous artwork from Picasso’s blue period is another that directly references Casagemas, La Vie. The painting shows Casagemas clad in a loincloth, with a nude woman clinging to his side. The pair are facing a mother with a child in her arms, in a confrontational stance. Behind the figures are two paintings, one showing a crouching nude couple and another with a nude figure that resembles Vincent van Gogh’s Sorrow. This piece is said to be the pinnacle of Picasso’s blue period, inviting numerous interpretations about the meaning of the piece and how it represented Picasso’s life.
The Old Guitarist
The Old Guitarist was one of the pieces inspired by Picasso’s travels to Spain. The painting shows a frail man cradling a guitar, with his head bowed and eyes closed. The hollows in his cheeks suggest that he may be impoverished, with only his guitar for comfort.
Picasso used dark blue hues for The Old Guitarist, giving the piece an added sense of melancholy. The color scheme is almost monochromatic, creating a flat, two-dimensional form. This gives the guitarist a sense of timelessness, as it is impossible to decipher a time period or even a place that he inhabits. However, Picasso has painted the guitar in brown tones, suggesting that even in this all-encompassing melancholia the guitar provides a source of warmth and comfort for the guitarist.
The Old Guitarist differs from the other tragic figures depicted in the works from Picasso’s blue period. Although the guitarist, like other figures, is emaciated and desolate, he still has a spiritual reprieve in the form of his instrument. His elongated limbs and cramped, angular pose are reminiscent of fellow Spanish artist El Greco, who Picasso greatly admired. While his head is bowed, it may not necessarily be from depression, but a transcendental effect of playing his beloved instrument.
It has been interpreted that the closed eyes of the man suggest that he is blind. This could be an influence of the symbolist movement, in which blindness was a sign of otherworldly vision, or divine sight. Another theory is that The Old Guitarist was created to reflect Picasso’s place in society, feeling isolated and impoverished, and finding comfort in his art.
Hidden secrets of The Old Guitarist
Looking closely at The Old Guitarist, it is possible to make out the faint, ghostly figure of a woman. Just above the guitarist’s neck, eagle-eyed viewers might be able to see the outline of a woman’s face. However, she is one of three figures that are hidden within the blue tones of The Old Guitarist.
The conservation department at the Art Institute of Chicago noticed inconsistencies in the brushwork of the piece, prompting them to take a closer look with an infrared x-ray. Their research revealed not just the shadowy face of the woman above the guitarist, but also two additional figures. The woman is sketched in what appears to be a seated position- looking closely at the shins of the guitarist, it is almost possible to see the lines of the woman’s legs. Further x-rays revealed the woman’s left arm is also hanging down at her side.
The x-rays showed that there was in fact another face etched into the painting. At the neck of the woman mentioned, there is another woman’s face sketched looking to the right. Further examinations show that there is a child nursing at the breast of the first woman, kneeling down at the left side of the piece.
Finally, the cow motif that appears in so many other works of Picasso is also hidden under the layers of paint. At the right of the painting, researchers discovered the sketch of a cow licking the head of a calf.
It is unknown why Picasso abandoned these early sketches, but it is theorized that he reused the same canvas due to lack of funds. Regardless, these discoveries add another layer of depth to an already haunting piece of art.