Marking the beginning of his career, Picasso’s Blue Period is among the most prolific beginnings to any artist’s career in the history of modern art. Well before he started producing what he would become internationally known for, well after his death in the form of Cubism, Picasso painted basically monochromatic, blue and green shaded works. These paintings, now among his most popular, were born of the somber mood he experienced in Spain, but were largely affected by his move and location in Paris.
Picasso moved from Spain to Paris midway through the year 1901 and it is unclear when he first started painting the images most readily associated with this period – in Spain or in Paris. What is known though is that this period in Picasso’s career was directly affected by his travels through Spain and the suicide of close friend Carlos Casagemas. Casagemas took his own life on February 18, 1901 in Paris, by shooting himself.
To this point, Picasso had already started to enjoy some small bit of acclaim for his vibrant early paintings, depicting much less somber subjects. However, Picasso himself is quoted as having said that he “started painting in blue when [he] learned of the Casagema’s death.” It was an almost instant change in his style, the kind of sudden shift that would come to define his career.
In that latter half of 1901, after it is generally agreed that Picasso’s palette shifted to all blues and greens, and he started depicting prostitutes, beggars, and drunkards, he painted a collection of portraits of his deceased friend Casagemas. These portraits led up to the eventual completion of La Vie, a masterpiece he completed in 1903 that currently sits in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Another work that has become representative of Picasso’s Blue Period is The Frugal Repast, painted in 1904 and depicting a couple, one blind and one with sight, starving to death and sitting at an empty table. Picasso repeatedly utilized the theme of blindness in his Blue Period paintings, as seen in The Blindman’s Meal, painted in 1903, and Celestina, also painted in 1903.
Picasso painted numerous other subjects that might not otherwise be depicted in the somber blues and downtrodden themes of his Blue Period paintings. These included individuals such as fellow artists, circus performers, or checker clad harlequins. Harlequins would become a recurrent character in many of Picasso’s works in years to come.
The most famous of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings is likely The Old Guitarist. This image portrays a blind old man clothed in rags, hunched over his guitar. Painted in 1903, the work now resides in The Art Institute of Chicago.
As an emotional precursor to the more vibrant, lively Rose Period and the analytical, departure ridden Cubism, the Blue Period represents a time in Picasso’s life when he was young (only 20 years old in 1901) and coming to terms with his life and the new found fame he was rapidly acquiring. The death of his close friend represented his growth into adulthood and a loss of innocence, all expressed and followed in his paintings from this period.