Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

Categories: Pablo Picasso

The painting under discussion is Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It was painted in oil on canvas in at a villa which Picasso rented in Fontainebleu in 1921 and is currently located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I viewed the picture on the museum’s website. This painting stands out for me because it seems to sum up all the qualities that make Picasso such a great artist and it has a special aura I can only describe as “enigmatic”.

Picasso is arguably the greatest artists of the twentieth century, and perhaps even one of the greatest ever and this particular example illustrates just a small sample of his artistic abilities.

The painting was created at an important point in Picasso’s career as an artist. He had just completed the phases known as the blue period and the rose period, and had also spent some time exploring African motifs. In all of his different phases Picasso picked up the intellectual and cultural moods and fashions, turning them to his own uses in his art.

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He had carried on painting in Paris throughout the first world war, and this painting was made during a spell of experimentation with symbolism, surrealism, and especially cubism in the art circles of the period.

It has the disjointed heads and geometric shapes that one expects from Picasso in his cubic phase but it has a strangely “posed” and distant feel, as if the figures standing there are masked and dressed up, hiding their real feelings behind the stylised costumes.

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There is a sadness about it, but not in the expressions of the faces, because there is no clear view of the faces, so much as in the muted shades and predominance of grays. The musicians are putting on a show, but when I first saw the picture I had a sense that there was there was something more behind this surface message.

The three figures just stand there, rather forlornly, as if to show that they are only dressing up for the part, and are not actually real musicians at all. Further research for this paper revealed to me that indeed there is a story behind the musicians and this has added to the picture’s appeal for me. The composition of the piece is rather traditional, in so far as there are three main figures, standing in a group facing the viewer. It is in a rather large format (roughly two metres square) and three sets of eyes looking through a jumble of colored shapes make a striking first impression.

The background at the top of the picture consists of vertical panels of light brown and light blue while the background at the bottom is a solid and rich orange red color. One can make out a stringed instrument on the left, a violin perhaps, a woodwind instrument in the middle which might be a recorder, and a keyboard instrument like an accordion on the right. The figure on the left wears a harlequin costume in shades of yellow and orange. The middle figure appears to wear a pierrot costume in white with a black eye mask.

The figure on the right wears a brown monk’s habit with a rope around the waist and dangling down to the right. All three have their heads covered: a black beret for the harlequin, a white cornered hat for the pierrot, and a monastic hood for the monk. No faces are visible, but all three figures have and little white circles for eyes painted over what looks like masks, and all three also have stereotypical little French-style pencil moustaches. It looks theatrical and this is underlined by the showing of open books with musical notes on them in the foreground of the painting.

The figures stand on legs which are roughly painted, with no concern for proportion in their width or perspective in the way the feet are pointing. Hands appear out of proportion and at odd angles here and there. Across the middle of the painting a brown table creates a solid horizontal block, as if the three musicians are standing behind a lectern for a formal recital. If it weren’t for the cubist style, the unsophisticated composition would fit very well into a medieval manuscript showing minstrels or monks performing in a stately hall or church.

The six elements which most closely characterize this painting are line, shape, space, texture, color, and balance and we shall look at each one of these in turn. There are many different types of line in this painting, starting with the bold black outlines of the feet, and including the fine threads in the bow and the small crosses on the brown vertical background panels. S- shaped lines are repeated in the violin, the harlequin’s collar and in various boundaries between colors, and some of them look like a human face in profile, as for example around the woodwind instrument and at the monk’s elbow.

Fingers are just straight lines on the hand shapes, and legs are equally just perpendicular lines. Vertical lines are the most common. Looking at the picture as a whole the predominant shapes are rectangles with the shorter sides at top and bottom but these are arranged above and below the table which is a strong horizontal shape in the middle of the picture. This horizontal shape is repeated in the crooked arms of the musicians. Triangles feature also, but they are generally arranged to complement a larger vertical, as in the harlequin’s trousers, or a larger horizontal as in the harlequin’s lower arm.

Organic shapes break up the geometric layout here and there, especially in the area around the heads of the three figures, but they are generally smaller in size than the geometric shapes. As one would expect, the way in which Picasso implies space is a feature of this cubist work. Obrien notes that the picture obeys “the strict cubist canon, and space is the result of flat, generally rectilinear planes alone”. Cubism, as defined by the Encylopaedia Britannica emphasizes the two dimensional surface of the picture plane and sees no need for the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modelling and chiaroscuro.

There is no attempt at realism, and in places it is hard to work out, especially in the top half of the picture, where the torsos begin and the background ends, so closely do the shapes of the figures mingle into the shapes of the background. The viewer can see the human figures when they are implied, rather than represented in a realistic way. As a result of this technique, the picture has very little depth, as if the three figures are standing on a very narrow stage and looking straight into the audience who are very close at hand.

A modern parallel composition might be found in a cartoon, where the figures are drawn like this in a square box form without much depth or differentiation from the background. Picasso has used various different textures overlapping each other, such as a cross hatch pattern on the brown vertical panels, criss-cross panels as if for collar and cuffs, rope like detail on the right. This, along with the cubist shapes, makes the painting resemble one of his earlier collages, although it is actually a traditional oil on canvas work.

The colors used are fairly bright, as one expects in a cubist painting, but they are not arranged in such a way as to emphasize the brightness. They seem to be painted with an open palette, but the painter shies away from the most glowing blues and reds, suggesting that there is a dimension of life missing from this theme. The brightest color is yellow but it is confined to the small triangles on the harlequin’s costume. There is a deep orange which predominates only at the very bottom of the picture.

Black is most often aligned with brown (rather than white or yellow) which gives the painting a subdued look, with little in the way of lively contrast. The blue, which occurs in large blocks, is too pale to provide a good contrast with the orange, and there is something disturbing about the way that the warm red pulls the eye down to the bottom of the picture. There is no corresponding sky equivalent, or light or even brightness at the top of the painting, but instead a dull brown horizontal stripe. The colors are indoor colors, speaking of confinement and sadness rather than joy.

The three figures are in a flat and static pose which Piot calls “solidity of construction”. She sees the three “soldered together with each figure fitting into the others to form a balanced construction, an intelligent arrangement” . Other critics see echoes of pagan religious works, for example Richardson who describes the group as “effigies, such as a shaman might fashion out of bits and pieces”. There is purpose in the three part construction, and they do appear to belong together and balance each other out in space, just as musicians in a trio are intended to do.

There is general agreement among the critics that the three figures in the painting are connected with Picasso himself and his two immediate friends from his life in Paris in the years immediately after the first World War. The website of the Philadelphia Museum of art interprets the harlequin as Picasso, the Pierrot figure in the middle as the French symbolist poet Guillaume Appollinaire, and the monk as Max Jacob, another poet who had just recently taken himself off to a monastery.

The musical instruments are the kind used for folk music, and the costumes are related to the comic figures of Italian opera and Spanish carnival. Picasso had painted the harlequin before and had associated himself with this happy/sad clown persona, an image, perhaps, for the emotional turmoil he the artist felt inside himself. He was a prolific artist, but he led a very complicated family life, and was often troubled by financial hardship and stormy relationships.

Picasso had travelled widely in Spain, France and Italy by this time, and he had worked in theatres designing sets. The imagery certainly is drawn from this area. The picture may well be, as Caws suggests an attempt to mark the passing of Picasso’s bohemian past, and his transition into a new neo-classical phase of art, leaving cubism and all its associations behind. She seems to go a little too far, however, in suggesting that the three figures represent the Holy Trinity, with Picasso as God the Father, Max Jacob as the Son, and Guillaume Appollinaire as the Holy Spirit.

The mood of the painting is not spiritual. If any such reference is hinted at by Picasso, then at most it would be an ironic one. Richardson sees in the yellow and orange of the harlequin’s costume a reference to the Catalan flag, which bears these colors in a stripe formation. He also notes that the fishnet mask that Pierrot wears could be an indication that the costume is home made, and an example of working class carnival costume rather than high brow theatre or opera.

There is no need, however, to pin down an absolute source for these details, since Picasso often chose synthesis and juxtaposition, sometimes even in the same painting, to illustrate different kinds of interrelatedness in human ideas and experiences. The attribution of these three artists to the musicians does appear to be valid. Appollinaire had just recently died, and with Jacob now retiring from the busy world to a life of contemplation, the poor Harlequin is the only one of the three who is left to carry on the artistic work that they accomplished together.

The awful experiences of the war are over, but the survivor appears to mourn what has been lost. The work undoubtedly has lasting value. This painting, along with a similar composition painted in the same year where the musicians are seated, is regarded as one of the finest examples of “synthetic cubism”, a refinement of the earlier analytic cubism. After studying the painting in great detail for this assignment, it has become clear to me that there is more humour there than the critics seem to suggest. I see this especially in the way that the little moustaches are painted.

All three musicians have the same form of moustache, but each one is painted in a slightly different way – the harlequin has one black and one white half, the pierrot has white with black stripes, and the monk has a fuller shape with the black and white halves in reverse order from the harlequin. It as if they are putting on little hidden smiles, and playing with the viewer, showing how they all share a secret joke but will not say exactly what it was. Reference List. Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso. 1925. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Online: http://philamuseum. org/collections/permanent/53963. html

Caws, Mary Ann, Pablo Picasso. Critical Lives Series. London: Reaktion Books, 2005. “Cubism” Article in the encyclopaedia Britannica, available online at: http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/145744/Cubism? anchor=ref172966 Leal, Brigitte and Piot, Christine. The Ultimate Picasso. New York: Abrams, 2003. O’Brien, Patrick, Picasso, A Biography. 1976: repr New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Reff, Theodore, “Picasso’s Three Musicians: Maskers, Artists & Friends”, Art in America vol. 68, no 10 (Dec 1980), pp. 124-142. Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years. 1917-1932 . New York: Knopf, 2007.

Updated: Mar 15, 2022
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Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso. (2016, Sep 10). Retrieved from

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso essay
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