Picasso’s Seated Harlequin with Red Background (1905)

Anyone with a little knowledge about Picasso knows that the painter identified with the harlequin/clown figure (far left) as many artists had before him, including his great French predecessor, Antoine Watteau. Watteau's Gilles (near left) is widely recognized as a hidden self-representation of the artist and a major masterpiece of the Louvre.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Picasso, Seated Harlequin with a Red Background (1905) Nationalgalerie, Museum Berggruen, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Right: Watteau, Gilles (c.1718-19)

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By the mid-nineteenth century, though, the trend had become a vogue with even poets like Baudelaire openly acknowledging their alter ego in the figure of the clown or acrobat.2 True artists help guide the viewer towards mystic truths which many hint at by identifying with these marginal figures in their art: solitary, lonely figures who, like the artists, deliver virtuoso performances at great risk of failure. That is why the mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that "the circus is the entryway to a higher world."3

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Seated Harlequin with a Red Background (1905) 

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We have already shown in the entry, Picasso's Harlequin (1901) and Blue Period, that many of Picasso's earlier paintings of women are based on Raimondi's engraved portrait of Raphael sitting alone on a stone ledge in a bare room (near left). His later 1905 painting of a young harlequin uses the same source, a link with meaning that no other art historian has seen. It confirms that harlequin represents a great master though it is not the only source. Picasso mixed and matched many sources as long as they added meaning. Be careful not to think that the sources were used for design purpose alone: that is generally not the case.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Picasso, Seated Harlequin with Red Background (1905)
Right: Raimondi, Portrait of Raphael (c.1518)

Click image to enlarge.

Harlequin in this image lacks any accoutrements to identify him as a painter. Given both the source and Picasso's clear self-identification with figures like this one in other images, none are needed. Nevertheless his hand lies flat on a blank surface and draws attention to itself. The flat hand, like the pointing finger, is a little-known gesture in art often signifying the act of painting.4 Here it probably recalls Titian's hand in his self-portrait in the Uffizi which, painted with Titian's actual fingers, appear as though they are about to "paint" a blank canvas on the table, as other writers have noted.5  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Picasso, Seated Harlequin, detail
Right: Titian, Self-portrait, detail

Click image to enlarge.

I should also mention that Picasso's young harlequin sits with the resigned expression of the Man of Sorrows, the dejected representation of Christ before the Crucifixion. This is not coincidence because, as Jean Clair writes, Pierrot, the French clown, "can be seen to embody the myth of the crucified Christ."6 Here, though, is not the place to go any further. I merely want to demonstrate that when an artist's proper source is known, a seemingly simple image like this one becomes more interesting and profound.

Notes:

1. Dora Panofsky,  “Gilles or Pierrot?: Iconographic Notes on Watteau”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XXXIX (1952) p.330; Theodore Reff, “Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools”, Artforum 10, Oct. 1971, pp. 30-43

2. Jean Clair, "Parade and Paligenesis: Of the Circus in the Work of Picasso and Others" in The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada) 2004, p.30

3. Jean Clair, op. cit., p.25

4. See entries under the theme Pointing and Touch, especially Titian's Touch which discusses the self-portrait and Picasso's Two Nudes (1905).

5. Joanna Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-Portraiture (Yale University Press) 1998, pp. 162-3

6. Jean Clair, op. cit., pp. 29-30

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