LONDON - On 5 February Sotheby’s set a new auction record for a print by Pablo Picasso, when La femme qui pleure I (1937) sold for £3,218,500 against an estimate of £1,200,000-1,800,000. This is Picasso’s most important print and undeniably one of the most important graphic works of the 20th century.  I have found in my own conversations with colleagues and collectors that another print from Picasso’s oeuvre is held dearest to many hearts, Le Repas Frugal (1904). 

Pablo Picasso’s Le Repas Frugal, 1904.

Like La femme qui pleure, Le Repas Frugal bares Picasso’s preoccupations about the world around him, but as a younger man at the start of his career. Le Repas Frugal was only the second print Picasso had produced (the first is a minor work that was never editioned) and was created when the artist was only 20 years old and had finally settled for good in Paris. It is the only print linked to the artist’s Blue Period, recognizable by the pervasive melancholy and poverty the image depicts. The variety of lines and tonalities Picasso achieved and his ability to translate an elegant linear gesture with the then unfamiliar medium are astonishing. This is most evident for me in the long, bony hands of the man and woman. Their thinness shows hunger, but the deeply bitten lines emphasize the contact against an arm or a chin and the couple have turned away from their sparse meal. For me, this is a tender print that depicts human closeness within the melancholy.

(left) Pablo Picasso's Le Bain, 1905. (right) Pablo Picasso’s Les Pauvres.

Le Repas is a transitional work mirroring a transitional moment in Picasso’s biography when the struggles and poverty of the prior few years were beginning to ease. It is part of La suite des Saltimbanques, a series of fourteen prints completed between 1904 and 1905. The other prints in this series relate more closely to Picasso’s Rose Period when the artist’s subject matter turned to the itinerant circus performers who were familiar figures in his Paris neighbourhood of the bateau-lavoir.  Among the images of acrobats at rest and play, the series still includes scenes of quotidian poverty and social exclusion such as Les Pauvres and Le Repas. The subject matter is not primarily circus acts, rather familial interactions between the acrobats at rest. These scenes are interspersed with portraits against spare backgrounds that reveal a nobility not commonly associated with this neglected underclass. The transitory acrobats were outside society, but independent. It has been suggested that they symbolized for Picasso his own recent unsettled lifestyle and the a-traditional family he forged among the avant-garde artists in Paris. 

Sotheby’s will be offering the complete Saltimbanques Suite on 18th March. Please contact one of our experts from the Prints department for more information: +44 (0)20 7293 6416.