The Old Guitarist
|Type||Oil on panel|
|Dimensions||122.9 cm × 82.6 cm (48.4 in × 32.5 in)|
|Location||Art Institute of Chicago|
The Old Guitarist is an oil painting by Pablo Picasso created in 1903. It depicts an old, blind, haggard man with threadbare clothing weakly hunched over his guitar, playing on the streets of Barcelona, Spain. It is currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the time of The Old Guitarist’s creation, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Symbolism had merged and created an overall movement called Expressionism, which greatly influenced Picasso’s style. Furthermore, El Greco, Picasso’s poor standard of living, and the suicide of a dear friend influenced Picasso’s style at the time, which came to be known as his Blue Period. Several x-rays, infrared images, and examinations by curators revealed three different figures hidden behind the old guitarist.
At the time, having renounced his classical and traditional education and searching for fame, Picasso and his friend, Carlos Casagemas moved to Paris. Unfortunately, just a year later, Casagemas became hopelessly miserable from a failed love affair and committed suicide. Picasso was greatly afflicted by this horrible event and was soon depressed and desolate. In addition, Picasso was very poor. His absolute poverty made him identify and relate to beggars, prostitutes, and other downtrodden outcasts in society. In fact, The Old Guitarist is modeled after a blind artist in Madrid.
These events and circumstances led to the creation of Picasso’s Blue Period, which lasted from 1901 to 1904. The Blue Period is identified by the flat expanses of blues, greys, and blacks, melancholy figures lost in contemplation, and a deep and significant tragedy. After the blue period was the rose period, and eventually the cubism era, which Picasso co-founded.
Every single element in The Old Guitarist was carefully chosen to render a stronger reaction in the audience. For example, the monochromatic color scheme eliminates the joy of changing colors and light and creates flat, two-dimensional forms that dissociate the guitarist from time and place. In addition, the overall muted blue palette creates a general tone of melancholy and accentuates a tragic and sorrowful theme. Also, the sole use of oil on panel causes a darker and more theatrical mood. Oil tends to blend the colors together without losing the colors’ brightness, creating an even more cohesive dramatic composition.
Furthermore, the guitarist shows no sign of life and appears to be close to death, implying little comfort in the world and accentuating the misery of his situation. Details are eliminated and scale is manipulated to create elongated, scrawny, and elegant proportions and to intensify the silent contemplation of the guitarist and a sense of spirituality. Despite the guitarist’s blindness, viewers feel the guitarist holds an inner vision and psyche. Moreover, the large, brown guitar is the only shift in color found in the painting. The guitar fills up the space around the guitarist physically and symbolically. In its dull brown, the guitar becomes so prominent against the blue background that it is the center and focus of the guitarist and the viewer. The guitar comes to represent the guitarist’s world and only hope for survival.
This blind and poor artist depends on his guitar and the small fare he can create from his music for survival. Plus, a guitar, as a musical instrument, is a natural mean for expressing emotions. This allows the guitarist to share and increase his loneliness. Some art historians believe this painting expresses the solitary life of an artist and the natural struggles that come with the career. Therefore, music, or art, becomes a burden and a separating force, isolating artists from the rest of the world. Art in general becomes a symbol of rejection and isolation.  And yet, despite the isolation, the guitarist (artist) depends on the rest of society for survival. All of these latter feelings and emotions reflect Picasso’s predicament at the time, which could easily lead to the conclusion that Picasso was criticizing the state of society. The Old Guitarist becomes an allegory of human existence.
Recent x-rays and examinations from curators found three figures peering behind the old guitarist’s body. The three figures are an old woman with her head bent forward, a young mother with a small child kneeling by her side, and an animal on the right side of the canvas. Despite unclear imagery in crucial areas of the canvas, experts determined that at least two different paintings are found beneath The Old Guitarist.
In 1998, researchers used an infrared camera to penetrate the uppermost layer of paint (the composition of The Old Guitarist) and clearly saw the second-most composition. By using this camera, researchers were able to determine a young mother seated in the center of the composition, reaching out with her left arm to her kneeling child at her right, and a calf or sheep on the mother’s left side. Clearly defined, the young woman has long, flowing dark hair and a thoughtful expression.
The Art Institute of Chicago shared its infrared images with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Curator, William Robinson, identified a sketch of Picasso sent to his friend Max in a letter. It revealed the same composition of mother and child, but it had a cow licking the head of a small calf. In a letter to his friend Jacob, Picasso reveals he was painting this composition a few months before he began The Old Guitarist. Despite all of these discoveries, no one knows why Picasso did not complete the composition of the mother and child or what the composition of the older woman looks like and its significance.
- Picasso's Blue Period
- The Art Institute of Chicago: Revealing Picasso Conservation Project
- Biography of Pablo Picasso
- "Pablo Picasso's works, featuring: The Old Guitarist." 123HelpMe.com. 09 Mar 2011 <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=46491>.
- Rimer, Bonnie. The Old Guitarist Meets New Technology. Rep. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2001. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <http://www.clevelandart.org/exhibcef/picassoas/html/7327426.html>.
- "Picasso's Musical Instruments: Blue Period Music: The Old Guitarist." Princeton University Blog Service. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://blogs.princeton.edu/writingart8/archives/2004/12/the_blue_period.html>.
- "Pablo Ruiz Picasso Painting The Old Guitarist - TheArtistPabloPicasso.com." The Artist Pablo Picasso Art and Biography - Theartistpablopicasso.com. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://www.theartistpablopicasso.com/pablo-picasso-painting-old-guitarist.htm>.
- "Symbolism." SJSU DIGITAL ART LOBBY. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://gallery.sjsu.edu/paris/symbolism/introduction.html>.