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 17th century Commedia dell'Arte, came to be known in the 20th 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. The present work is one of his earliest depictions of this iconic character, and is a composition that would inspire an entire retinue of harlequin pictures in years to come.
Painted in 1905, Tête d'arlequin is one in a series of eight portraits of an anonymous adolescent boy, including the masterful Garçon à la pipe (see fig. 1), that are considered the artist's most significant productions of his Rose period. Scholars believe the present work and another painting of the same title (see fig. 2) to be the earliest compositions from this important series. The boy in both of these pictures wears the harlequin's characterisic diamond-patterned costume, and his intimate pose reveals the artist's fascination with the spirit of this character. Picasso personally identified with the persona of the harlequin, believing his unquenchable lust for life and whimsy to be much like his own. Also in 1905, an adult version of the harlequin at a night café appeared in Picasso's Au Lapin Agile (see fig. 3). The figure was understood to 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 resemblence to his own image (see fig. 4).
The harlequins that figure in Picasso's work between 1904-05 are alternately portrayed among the acrobats of a travelling circus, as in Les Saltimbanques, or on their own, as in the present work. In successive paintings of this anonymous boy the artist divested him of his tell-tale costume and dressed him in blue (see fig. 7), as he did for the young model 'p’tit Louis' in Garçon à la pipe. Since he is still dressed in costume, it is believed that this painting is one of the earliest compositions among the eight portraits of young men painted in 1905 (Zervos 1, nos. 252, 271, 273, 274, 276, 277 and 294). Núria Rivero and Teresa Llorens explain, “The origin of these adolescents is, without doubt, the young people of the circus, however, little by little all allusions to that past is lost, which indicates the dawn of a new period. As Daix points out, ‘The young people in blue, who at first came from the circus, soon ceased to be Harlequins. They simply became elegant adolescents, enriched by the seduction of their age and the dreamy poetry they carried inside them,’ By virtue of this progressive distancing and loss of content in favour of a more formal art, Tête de Harlequin [see fig. 2], like another oil painting of the same title [the present work], must be placed at the beginning of this process. Reminiscences of the circus world, with the bright dress of Harlequin, are still present, while in the rest of the compositions he dressed in blue and only occasionally shows the familiar white ruff.” (in Picasso, 1905-1906 (exhibition catalogue), Museu Picasso, Barcelona; Kunstmuseum, Berne, 1992, p. 264).
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 Tête 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” (Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, 1981, p. 110).
For most of its history, the present picture was in the collection of Alex Vömel, the important dealer of avant-garde art who owned a gallery in Düsseldorf. Vömel considered this picture to be a gem among all those that he handled, and he kept it in his private collection for over twenty years.
Fig. 1, Pablo Picasso, Garçon à la pipe, 1905, oil on canvas, sold: Sotheby's May 2004, $104,168,000
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, Tête d'Arlequin, 1905, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, bequeathed by Roger H. Tannahill
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, Au Lapin Agile, 1905, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 4, Photograph of the artist as a boy, circa early 1890s
Fig. 5, Pablo Picasso, Garçon bleu, 1905, gouache on cardboard, Private collection, Switzerland
Oil on beveled and cradled panel
Zürich, Kunsthaus, Picasso, 1932, no. 24
13 3/4 by 10 3/8 in. 35 by 26.5 cm
André Level, Picasso, Paris, 1928, illustrated pl. 19
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, oeuvres de 1895 à 1906, vol. I, Paris, 1932, no. 252, illustrated pl. 112
Pierre Daix & Georges Boudaille, Picasso 1900-1906, catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris, 1966, no. XIII.16, illustrated pl. 279
Josep Palau i Fabre, Picasso, The Early Years, 1881-1907, Barcelona, 1985, no. 1172, illustrated p. 429
Picasso, 1905-1906 (exhibition catalogue), Museu Picasso, Barcelona; Kunstmuseum, Berne, 1992, discussed p. 264
Alex Vömel, Düsseldorf (by 1932 and until at least 1956)
Private Collection, Düsseldorf
Wildenstein, New York
Private Collection (acquired from the above)