Pablo Picasso Paintings: Blue Period

Well-illustrated analysis of Pablo Picasso paintings: blue period, 1901-1904.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish; School of Paris painter, sculptor, etcher, lithographer, ceramist and designer; influenced 20th century art enormously; worked in an unprecedented variety of styles.

Picasso’s art is categorized into periods. The most well-known periods in his work are the Blue Period, the Rose Period (1905–1907), the African-influenced Period (1908–1909), Analytic Cubism (1909–1912), and Synthetic Cubism (1912–1919). Names of many of his later periods are not as clearly defined.

The Years of Picasso’s Blue Period

The three years known as Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period was a time when a pale, cold blue was the dominant color in his paintings and drawings, and when the mood of his paintings, mostly paintings of poor people and sad-faced women, was very gloomy.

There were several factors that shaped Pablo Picasso’s paintings of that time.

First, the ‘Blue Period’ constituted some difficult, unsettling times for Picasso personally. It was the first time that Picasso was away from home, and he moved back and forth between Spain and France quite a bit.

In 1900, Picasso visited Paris, then the art capital of Europe, for the first time with his friend Carlos Casagemos. It was on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition, an exhibition which included one of Picasso’s paintings. Picasso lands a contract with the art dealers Pere Manach as well as sales and future exhibitions at the Berthe Weil gallery. In 1901 Picasso moved to Madrid, and makes a second trip to Paris, and has his first exhibition there in the Vollard Gallery. In 1902 he moves back to Barcelona and makes a third trip to Paris. In 1904 he finally settles in Paris, in Montmartre.

Second, the struggling young artist, Picasso, was so poor that he often did not have sufficient funds to pay rent or to buy art materials. Some of his paintings were made into firewood to keep his apartment warm.

Third, the period marks the death of his friend, Carlos Casagemas. Carlos had attempted to commit suicide because of a broken heart. The loss of his friend made a huge impression on him and brought on a period of depression for Picasso.

It was February 1901, while Picasso was in Madrid, when he received news of Casagemas’s suicide. In response he produced several intense paintings of his dead friend including the ‘Death of Casagemas’ (made in summer 1901) and a symbolically complex work, ‘Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas’ (later in 1901). This latter painting superimposed allusions to the art of the past and in particular to El Greco’s ‘Burial of Count’ Orgaz (1586–8).

Fourth, at that time, Pablo Picasso was a young artist, just in his early twenties. While he had starting painting at an supreme early age (3 years old), his early twenties was a time when Picasso was looking for a style of his own. He was very prolific at that time, painting and drawing at all times.

Fifth and finally: Picasso’s depicted melancholy was also a sign of the times. In the artistic cycles of Barcelona at that time, early death, suicide and doubt about one’s own calling were common.

Characteristics of Blue Period Paintings

During this time, Picasso’s paintings and sketches were mostly done in its melancholy palette of predominantly blue tones. The mood of his paintings and sketches during this period showed strong emotions.

In 1901, Toulouse Lautrac dies in Paris, and large individual exhibitions are dedicated to him the following year. In terms of style, young Picasso artist was following in the footsteps of Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and the 19th Century symbolists. Picasso explored actually all the avant-garde painting styles of that time, in an endeavor to find his own.

While monochromatic, these early paintings by Picasso are far from simple: they are layered and complex, typically rich with symbolic color, exaggerated form, and abstracted spaces.

Picasso’s Blue Period paintings borrowed El Greco’s elongated forms and hallucinatory spaces.

During his Blue Period, Picasso started to sign his works with “Picasso” instead of the prior “Pablo Ruiz y Picasso.”

Motifs in Picasso’s Blue Period

During the The Blue Period, Picasso focused almost exclusively on gloomy themes and the disenfranchised. His subjects included blind beggars, drunks, laborers and women from a prison in Paris. Most of his artworks were portraits. Perhaps no artist depicted the plight of the underclasses with greater poignancy than Picasso.

As Picasso lived himself in relative poverty in his early years in Paris, Picasso obviously empathized with the disenfranchised around him. He often portrayed them with great sensitivity and pathos.

Examples of Paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period

Excellent examples from the period depict include the Blue Nude (1902), The Tragedy (1903) and The Old Guitar Player (1903).

Child with a Dove, c.1901
Pablo Picasso
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Picasso – Child with a Dove – Just Before the Blue Period

Picasso’s father bred doves. Many of Picasso’s childhood sketches included them. This work refer to memories of Picasso’s childhood, and in particular to his sister Conchita, who passed away in 1895 because of diphtheria. Picasso’s work took on a new maturity after her death. His sadness over the loss of his sister contributed to the melancholy in Picasso’s Blue Period. Picasso painted ‘Child Holding a Dove’ just prior to his ‘Blue Period’. The painting represents influences which marked his early work.

Blue Nude, c.1902
Pablo Picasso
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Pablo Picasso – Blue Nude

The Blue Nude is currently in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain.

It depicts the back of a woman in fetal position. Her emotions are not clear.

The Old Guitarist, c.1903
Pablo Picasso
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Pablo Picasso -The Old Guitarist

The painting, The Old Guitarist, is presently held at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, US.

Pablo Picasso painted The Old Guitarist in 1903. The painting was made just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas.

This work was created in Madrid, and the distorted style (note that the upper torso of the guitarist seems to be reclining, while the bottom half appears to be sitting cross-legged) is reminiscent of the works of El Greco.

The hidden secret
The painting ‘The Old Guitarist’ is known for a ghost-like appearance of a mysteriously faced a women painted underneath. (Her face is above the old man’s neck). As Picasso was strapped for cash to buy art materials, it is likely that Picasso reused materials. Most likely, he originally started painting a portrait of a seated, upset woman. Only her face and legs are visible.

The Tragedy, 1903
Pablo Picasso
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Pablo Picasso – The Tragedy

‘The Tragedy’ (1903) can be found by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., US.

The painting depicts three figures, one presumes a family, wife to left, husband center and boy of perhaps five years of age left, stand barefoot on a beach, a greenishblue beach in front of a pale blue sea and a darkened dusky sky blue. The man and woman have their heads bowed down. The boy is clapping his hands for heat. The husband looks old.

There is something between that they must say but can’t say and they acknowledge that they can’t say it. Someone or something is missing. A home? A person? Sustenance? There is a space between them they know not how to fill.

La Vie, 1903
Pablo Picasso
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Pablo Picasso – La Vie

La Vie, 1903. This painting marks the peak of Picasso’s Blue Period, and at the same time it represents the sum-total of this period. It is amongst his most famous paintings of this period.

This Picasso painting is currently in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, US.

As you can see here, it depicts an Eden-ish couple standing to the left. The nude woman in the moment after a shock, just in the beginning of absorbing it, cradling her head on the man’s shoulder. The blue loin-clothed man is painted in a classical pose with his finger pointing towards a mother on the right, who is holding an infant swaddled in a blanket. The mother looking somber, severe, fearful, angry, tired ….

In between the couple on the left and the mother with child on the right, there are two blue outlined silhouettes. In a slightly lighter shade of blue, a man consoling a woman, beneath them, a figure cradling head on knees, either weeping in torment, asleep or dead. It is as if the man is asking the mother what will become of her child, and in the space between, where one might expect find hope, instead there is desolation or, at best, mutual consolation.

There is no simple explanation to this painting, although many stories could be told based on this work. ‘La Vie’ is really a complex Symbolist allegory that evolved through numerous sketches. As X-rays analysis revealed that ‘La Vie’ is painted over ‘Last Moments’ and that it underwent several revisions. Its synthesis and layering of references rule out a fixed reading.

Autobiography is embedded in the male figure, which was begun as a self-portrait but later given the features of Casagemas. The iconically stiff composition, compressed space and enigmatic gestures, however, evoke a more general significance.


“Expression: Whenever I have had something to say, I have said it in the manner I felt I ought to say it. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression.” ~ Picasso

At the young age of 20, Picasso already realized a distinct style of art that is all of his own, despite his borrowing from various other artists and artistic movements and styles.

Picasso’s Blue Period was followed by Picasso’s Rose Period, which began in October 1904, following an exhibition of Picasso’s work at the Berthe Weill gallery of 12 works from the previous three years. His was favorably reviewed.

Both the Blue and the Rose periods were precursors to Cubism, which later defined much of Picasso’s career.

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