Outcasts became Picasso’s favored subjects during his blue period. In addition to artists, these included other down-and-out people: prostitutes, drunks, the homeless, and those simply struggling with the pressures of everyday life. In works like Mother and Child by a Fountain (1901) and Buveuse assoupie (Sleeping Drinker) (1902), Picasso focuses on two lonely, abject women. Both were likely inspired by his visits to the Saint Lazare women’s prison, where inmates often suffered from venereal diseases. The bent bodies and blue-gray palette of each subject communicates everyday hardship, but Picasso elevates their plight by swaddling them in cloaks that resemble representations of the Virgin Mary.
Other paintings, like Woman Ironing (1901), show destitute subjects performing mundane tasks. Scholars have suggested that Picasso used these works to respond to another issue that dogged him during his youth: the maltreatment of the working class during the industrial revolution.
In Picasso’s most celebrated painting from the Blue Period, however, he returns to the plight of the artist. La Vie (Life) (1903) brings us into an artist’s studio. While earlier versions of the painting, locked beneath the final work and revealed by X-rays, show Picasso as the central figure, in the end he depicted Casagemas as his subject. He is naked except for a loincloth as a nude woman clutches him, and the two look over at a mother and child. Behind them sit two canvases covered with crouching bodies.
Every element of the scene conveys vulnerability. The artist brings different facets of his troubles into a single canvas: poverty, dejection, creative anguish, and grief for those lost, like Casagemas. Interestingly, those X-rays have also revealed that the painting was executed on top of an earlier work called Last Moments, inspired by his sister’s death.
Perhaps, in bringing these various instances of heartbreak together, Picasso was also in the final stages of processing his grief. Indeed, soon after the artist finished La Vie, he moved to Paris and emerged from his Blue Period—into a palette of soft, joyful pinks. “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” Picasso later explained.