Discussing the genesis of the harlequin figure in Picasso’s work, E. A. Carmean observed that “the end of the nineteenth century saw a cross-current in both literature and painting flowing between the circus performer, the saltimbanque proper, and the traditional commedia figure. It is this interaction which Picasso confronted upon his arrival in Paris in 1900” (E. A. Carmean in Picasso. The Saltimbanques (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, p. 25). During his Blue period, Picasso executed several works on this theme, depicting the harlequins in the same melancholy mood that marked his art during this time. His 1904-05 renderings of this subject can be seen as an extension of his Blue period work, in its exploration of the theme of the poor, the marginalized members of society, of which these circus performers, with their peripatetic life-style, were a perfect example.
However, the prevailing mood of Famille d’arlequin and related works is not that of melancholy, and here Picasso introduced a new atmosphere of warmth and family closeness that was not seen in his earlier work. Rather than representing the family in a bare, metaphysical landscape, as in the large oil La Famille de saltimbanques, in the present work he depicts them in a warmer indoor setting. A sense of tenderness is amplified by the intimate interaction of all three family members, and was probably inspired by new circumstances in Picasso’s own life, namely his relationship with Fernande Olivier. Discussing the present work in the context of the other works on this theme, Núria Rivero and Teresa Llorens commented: “Within these variations, the present Harlequin’s family is an exception, given that it is the only scene in which Harlequin, who kisses and caresses the child, plays an active part, while [in] the rest he is a passive figure, normally a spectator of the games and the intimacy between mother and child. Only in some ‘fatherhoods’, such as in the watercolor Jester and saltimbanques, do we again find the tender and playful gesture of the father towards his son” (N. Rivero & T. Llorens in Picasso 1905-1906 (exhibition catalogue), Op. cit., p. 146).
Of all the fabled personae in Picasso’s repertoire, the harlequin is his most poignant. This figure, traditionally associated with the theater of the Italian seventeenth century Commedia dell'Arte, came to be known in the twentieth century as the symbol of Picasso's art. He would appear recurrently throughout the artist's career as a central character, such as in his stage set designs after the war, or as a vehicle for artistic expression in the highly geometricized Cubist constructions of the 1910s. At the end of his life Picasso would resurrect the harlequin in the form of a musketeer, symbolizing the beginning of his artistic expression and the creative force behind his entire production. Picasso personally identified with the persona of the harlequin, believing his unquenchable lust for life and whimsy to be much like his own. In 1905, an adult version of the harlequin at a night café appeared in Picasso's Au Lapin Agile; the figure was understood to be a thinly-veiled self-portrait, signifying the artist's coming of age in Bohemian Paris, and Picasso continued to paint him with a striking resemblance to his own image.
The harlequins that figure in Picasso's work between 1904-06 are alternately portrayed among the acrobats of a travelling circus, as in Les Saltimbanques, on their own, or, more rarely and as in the present work, in a convivial atmosphere of familial tranquility. This soulful composition signaled a shift in Picasso's art and led the way to the atmospheric compositions that have come to define the Rose period. Picasso’s Rose period has always been admired for its melancholic charm and haunting poetry, contrasting with the deep gloom of the immediately preceding Blue period. In both instances, the source of inspiration was in the artist's immediate surroundings. At the time he completed Famille d’arlequin Picasso was living in the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, so named because of its resemblance to a Seine washing barge. When not working in his studio, he would meet his friends in inexpensive restaurants and cabarets nearby, such as Le Zut and Le Lapin Agile. The present picture was probably inspired by one of the many acrobats who could be found performing on the street in this lively neighborhood. Roland Penrose described this environment in Montmartre as “being a village within a city…was almost self-contained. Within a small distance a great variety of amusements and theatres were at hand. For some years the most popular place of entertainment was the Cirque Medrano, which to this day still continues to enchant successive generations of Parisians. Its clowns, acrobats and horses had delighted Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Forain, Seurat and many others. There, behind the scenes and outside among the sideshows of the fair that traditionally occupies the whole boulevard during the winter, Picasso made friends with the harlequins, jugglers and strolling players. Without their being conscious of it, they became his models” (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, 1981, p. 110).
Picasso would return to the theme of harlequins after his journey to Italy, where he traveled in 1917 with Jean Cocteau, Léonide Massine and Sergei Diaghilev, with whom he was collaborating on Erik Satie’s ballet. In Naples and Pompeii they saw performances of Commedia dell’Arte, which revived Picasso’s interest in the subject of harlequins and circus performers and inspired a series of works executed in 1917-18. Although he revisited this theme at various times throughout his long career, always with a fresh approach and stylistic innovations, he never rendered them with the same sense of tenderness and warmth of his 1905 works, of which Famille d’arlequin is an outstanding example.
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