A Little Art History: Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Back in December, I wrote a post about being an avid art lover in the first half of my life, and how that passion had basically faded to the degree that I’m no longer keen on going to museums — my tastes having narrowed to the point where I know exactly what kind of art I like, and I’m more inclined to indulge my particular whims than go in search of art elsewhere. For the most part that feeling still holds, but lately I’ve been doing some excavation into my life, digging up works I’ve kept over the years, and I realize that art appreciation on one level or another has been at the core of almost everything I’ve ever done, writing-wise. For example, there’s a coffee table book I wrote and published in 2002 about artists and other creative types of people who live in my hometown; an unfinished novel in which my protagonist is a young woman from the South, in the 1930s, who falls in love with a travelling artist, follows him to New York, and in the course of her journeys becomes an artist herself; and works I kept from my college days pertaining to art history that I can’t seem to throw away. Thinking about the latter, I thought I’d create an ongoing (though random) series on my blog under the tagline “A Little Art History,” in which I’ll examine works that particularly speak to me. And on that note, here is my first entry:

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Pablo Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques


Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, completed in Paris in 1905. Oil on canvas. (From the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)


During the end of 1904 and the first half of 1905, the artist Pablo Picasso produced a group of works treating a circus theme. These paintings illustrate a transition from his Blue Period to the Rose Period, possessing a warmer palette, a more relaxed use of line, and a change in mood to suggest a more subtle feeling of melancholy. Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, his most famous painting from the Rose Period, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of a circus family. Like most of his works on this theme, Picasso chooses to show the performers behind the scenes, in their personal relationships, rather than in their masquerades before an audience. In doing so, he seems to emphasize the loneliness of any artist, whether trapeze or painter, whose work tends to isolate him from the rest of society. In the Harlequin, a favorite motif, Picasso unmasks a serious, often sorrowful, and very human person who is in direct contrast to our image of the laughing clown.

Picasso made numerous studies for this work. In fact, several of his earlier works of 1905 can be called studies for this painting because these same characters he painted in the beginning of the year found their way into the Family of Saltimbanques. The most important study belongs to the Shchukin collection in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In this preparatory sketch, the acrobats are positioned against a background which includes a horse race, a crowd, and houses. By omitting these details in favor of a desert background, Picasso places more emphasis on the figures themselves. Their sense of community forms the only barrier from a world of emptiness.


Family of Acrobats sketch by Pablo Picasso (from the Shchukin Collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow).

Although his palette is warmer than the monochromatic blues of the previous period, Picasso uses a delicate touch in applying the color. In some places it seems almost transparent—particularly in the seated figure of the woman, whose skirt seems to fade into the neutral setting—as if to suggest the ephemeral nature of life itself. This quality inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived with the painting for fifteen years, to write in the fifth of his Duino Elegies: “But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves—so urgently, ever since childhood wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?) never-contented will?”