This bent and sightless man holds close to him a large, round guitar. Its brown body represents the painting's only shift in color. Both physically and symbolically, the instrument fills the space around the solitary figure, who seems oblivious to his blindness and poverty as he plays. At the time the painting was made, literature of the Symbolist movement included blind characters who possessed powers of inner vision. The thin, skeletonlike figure of the blind musician also has roots in art from Picasso's native country, Spain. The old man's elongated limbs and cramped, angular posture recall the figures of the great 16th-century artist El Greco.
The technical examinations, combined with art-historical research, revealed two earlier compositions underneath the image of The Old Guitarist. This information gives us a better understanding of Picasso's artistic process.
A perfect companion piece is Wallace Stevens's poem, "The Man with the Blue Guitar." The poet puts words to Picasso's belief that art is the lie to help us see the truth. Stevens writes: "They said, 'You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.' / The man replied, 'Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.'" As a metaphor for the need to immerse oneself fully in one's grief in order to heal, Denise Levertov's poem, Talking to Grief is also apropos.
The painting is also notable for the ghostly presence of a mysterious image painted underneath. It is very likely that Picasso originally started painting a portrait of a woman, who appears to possibly be seated, and in an upset or worried mood. Not much of this image is visible except for her face and legs.
This painting is now located at Art Institute of Chicago in the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.
The Old Guitarist is an oil painting by Pablo Picasso created late 1903 – early 1904. It depicts an old, blind, haggard man with threadbare clothing weakly hunched over his guitar, playing in the streets of Barcelona, Spain. It is currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.
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. A year later, Casagemas became hopelessly miserable from a failed love affair and committed suicide. Picasso was greatly afflicted by this event and was soon depressed and desolate. In addition, Picasso was very poor. His poverty made him identify and relate to beggars, prostitutes and other downtrodden outcasts in society.
These events and circumstances were the impetus for the beginning 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 came Picasso's Rose Period, and eventually the Cubism movement which Picasso co-founded.
Elements in The Old Guitarist were carefully chosen to generate a reaction from the spectator. For example, the monochromatic color scheme 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 the tragic and sorrowful theme. The sole use of oil on panel causes a darker and more theatrical mood. Oil tends to blend the colors together without diminishing brightness, creating an even more cohesive dramatic composition.
Furthermore, the guitarist, although muscular, shows little 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 and elegant proportions while intensifying the silent contemplation of the guitarist and a sense of spirituality. The large, brown guitar is the only significant shift in color found in the painting; its dull brown, prominent against the blue background, becomes the center and focus. The guitar comes to represent the guitarist’s world and only hope for survival. This blind and poor subject depends on his guitar and the small income he can earn from his music for survival. 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 an alienating force that isolates artists from the world. And yet, despite the isolation, the guitarist (artist) depends on the rest of society for survival. All of these emotions reflect Picasso’s predicament at the time and his criticism of the state of society. The Old Guitarist becomes an allegory of human existence.
In the Old Guitarist, Picasso may have drawn upon George Frederic Watts's painting of Hope (1886), which similarly depicts a hunched, helpless musician with a distorted angular form and predominantly blue tone.
Recent x-rays and examinations by 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 discover 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., where curator William Robinson identified a sketch by Picasso sent to his friend Max Jacob 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 Jacob, Picasso reveals he was painting this composition a few months before he began The Old Guitarist. Despite these discoveries, the reason Picasso did not complete the composition with a mother and child, and how the older woman fitted into the history of the canvas, remain unknown.