Famille d’arlequin is a wonderful example of Picasso’s celebrated Rose period, which was dominated by images of family groups. During this time, the artist was fascinated by harlequins, acrobats, actors and circus performers, and his depictions of these characters and their families culminated in the monumental La Famille de saltimbanques (see fig. 1). These family groups are often accompanied by an animal, such as a monkey (see fig. 2) or a dog, and feature the harlequin wearing the characteristic lozenge pattern costume and hat. The society outcasts such as circus performers had a particular resonance with the young Picasso, who saw in them a symbol of human suffering, particularly the suffering of the artist. Whilst throughout his work most of his harlequins are depicted as lonely, melancholy figures, in the present work the prevailing mood is one of tenderness and satisfaction of domestic life.
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 (see fig. 1), 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 watercolour Jester and saltimbanques, do we again find the tender and playful gesture of the father towards his son” (Núria Rivero and Teresa Llorens in Picasso 1905-1906 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 146).
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.
Fig. 1, Pablo Picasso, La Famille de saltimbanques, 1905, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, Famille d’acrobates avec singe, 1905, gouache, watercolor, pastel and ink on board, Göteborg Konstmuseum, Sweden
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, La Famille d’arlequin, 1905, gouache and ink on board, Private Collection
Gouache and ink on card laid down on cradled panel
Cologne, Kunstverein, Malerei des 20. Jahrhunderts in Kölner Privatbesitz, 1957, no. 99 (incorrectly catalogued as oil on canvas)
11 5/8 by 8 1/2 in. 29.5 by 21.5 cm
Gaya Nuño and Juan Antonio, Picasso, Barcelona, 1950, discussed p. 13
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso. Oeuvres de 1895 à 1906, Paris, 1957, vol. 1, no. 244, illustrated pl. 109
Sir Anthony Blunt & Phoebe Pool, Picasso. The Formative Years, London, 1962, no. 138
Pierre Daix & Georges Boudaille, Picasso 1900-1906. Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint, Neuchâtel, 1966, no. XII.11, illustrated p. 260
François Daulte, "Nouveau Musée dans le Maine," L'Oeil, Paris, October 1978, illustrated p. 51
Josep Palau i Fabre, Picasso Vivo (1881-1907), Barcelona, 1980, no. 1034, illustrated p. 401
Josep Palau i Fabri, Picasso, The Early Years, 1881-1907, Barcelona, 1985, no. 1034, illustrated p. 401
Private Collection, Cologne (acquired from the artist)
Jacques Seligmann (by 1929)
Private Collection, Cologne (acquired from the above in 1929 and sold: Sotheby's London, November 25, 1959, lot 61)
M. Knoedler & Co., London & New York (acquired at the above sale)
Joan Whitney Payson, Manhasset, NY (acquired from the above and thence by descent)