It’s easy to think of Pablo Picasso as almighty: a painter who changed the course of art history, who unabashedly made art in his boxers, and who responded to questions from critics by firing a gun into the air.
But the late Spanish artist wasn’t always so confident or successful. In fact, his early years were fraught with poverty, tragedy, and emotional frailty—and it was these struggles that he channelled into his first pioneering body of work, known as his Blue Period.
It all started in 1901, when Picasso was just 19. At the time, he was running with a group of radical artists, writers, and anarchists who he’d met between his hometown of Barcelona and trips to Paris. His closest compatriot was the Spanish poet Carles Casagemas, but their friendship ended abruptly when Casagemas shot himself in the middle of a dinner party in Paris that year; he’d recently been spurned by a lover.
“It was thinking about Casagemas that got me started painting in blue,” Picasso later told his friend and biographer Pierre Daix. The death of his dear friend affected him deeply, and served as a catalyst for a series of canvases that he began soon after, each characterized by cold colors: melancholy blues, dusky greys, and sickly greens.
One of the first he produced, The Death of Casagemas (1901), responded directly to Casagemas’s suicide. The oil-on-wood work shows the poet’s bluish-green face swaddled in white blankets. He looks almost peaceful, as if sleeping, but Picasso’s addition of a bullet hole on his subject’s temple lays the tragedy bare.
Even before Casagemas’s passing, Picasso had struggled with a series of other deaths in his life. In 1895, his seven-year-old sister Conchita died of diptheria, and in 1899, the painter Hortensi Guell, a member of Picasso’s circle in Barcelona, threw himself off a cliff. Picasso was also aware of Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 suicide, and scholars have suggested that similarities between van Gogh’s paintings and the impastoed brushwork and moody palette of the young Picasso’s The Death of Casagemas were rendered in homage to the late artist.
Picasso’s grief for his sister, friends, and painter-hero mingled with his own internal creative conflicts. By early 1901, he hadn’t yet found a unique artistic voice—nor had he sold enough work to support himself. Together, these crises troubled Picasso and “formed a pattern of events suggesting that artists—at least those who live in opposition to mainstream society—are fated to suffering and tragedy,” as curator William H. Robinson pointed out.
Picasso identified with this plight, as a 1901 self-portrait made clear. While he was only 20 years old when he painted the piece, he depicts himself as gaunt, sallow, and fragile—a man who looks 50, rather than an energetic young fellow at the outset of his career. A spectrum of dusty, dark blues saturate the subject and the backdrop he stands against, while his face is an icy bluish-white, his coat a deep cobalt, and his eyes wells of navy. The overall impression is one of dejection: a tormented artist cast out of society.
Picasso’s use of blue to communicate pain and desolation has been traced to numerous sources. He was informed by Symbolist painters like Paul Gauguin, who filled canvases exploring themes like human destiny with blues. Take Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897), in which ceruleans and azures dominate the palette. Picasso was also drawn to the work of Romantic writers, like Alfred de Vigny’s stories of poets fated with tragic lives. As Robinson points out, the main character in Vigny’s novel Stello is a poet “favored by the stars,” but tormented by the “blue devils” of ennui.
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.