Three Musicians

By Tomlinson, Glen; Bassett, Barbara | School Arts, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Three Musicians


Tomlinson, Glen, Bassett, Barbara, School Arts


Three Musicians is an example of Picasso's Cubist style. In Cubism, the subject of the artwork is transformed into a sequence of planes, lines, and arcs. Cubism has been described as an intellectual style because the artists analyzed the shapes of their subjects and reinvented them on the canvas. The viewer must reconstruct the subject and space of the work by comparing the different shapes and forms to determine what each one represents. Through this process, the viewer participates with the artist in making the artwork make sense.

There are several ways Picasso uses shapes and colors to reinforce the flatness of Three Musicians. The patterned green wallpaper and the brick-red floor are made up of shapes that interlock with the figures. Because they are not painted with highlights and shadows, they do not seem to recede behind the musicians. The table and music also look very flat, since the music is not shown in perspective but as if it were held flat against the canvas. The table's diagonal sides move across the canvas in diverging directions, in conflict with traditional ways of representing the recession of a plane.

The spatial complexity of the painting is also enhanced by Picasso's use of the same color for different forms. The blue shape defining the central figure's left arm is the same color as the area to the right of the robed figure, an "open" space, which looks curiously like a human profile. Even though the two shapes indicate different surfaces and locations, Picasso paints them the same color. Using these techniques, Picasso creates a composition in which colored forms are balanced across the canvas and united to reinforce the flatness of the work.

Picasso and the Theater

In 1916, Jean Cocteau, a young theatrical director and writer, visited Picasso dressed as a harlequin and asked the artist to design the costumes and sets for his ballet Parade. This project was the first of several Picasso worked on for the stage.

While in Italy in 1917, Picasso saw performances of the Commedia dell'Arte in Naples. The Commedia dell'Arte was a popular form of comic theater beginning in the sixteenth century. Masked actors performed improvised dialogues, satiric songs, and dances. This enduring tradition of theater led to pantomime and its principal characters, Harlequin and Columbine. During these years, Picasso made many drawings and paintings of Harlequin and his associate Pierrot. In 1920, Picasso's work on Pulcinella drew him further into the world of the Commedia, just one year before he painted Three Musicians.

Identifying the Three Musicians

The three figures in this painting can be related to the Commedia dell'Arte and Carnival by their costumes. The figure with the triangle-patterned costume is the Harlequin. He is identifiable not only by his distinctive outfit but also by his curved hat. Originally a frightening, comic demon in medieval mystery plays, Harlequin's mischievous ways and sly humor seem to have made him a favorite of Picasso. The figure in white is Pierrot, a poetic character prone to falling in love, a figure by turns both happy and sad. The robed figure represents a monk, a character who appeared at Carnival time in Catholic countries including Italy and Picasso's own homeland, Spain. For many years, these characters were thought to relate only to Picasso's work for the theater, but in 1980, art historian Theodore Reff wrote that the three figures related more directly to Picasso's personal life around 1920.

In 1918, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire died of influenza. Picasso and Apollinaire had become very close friends around 1910, when another poet named Max Jacob introduced them to each other. Jacob had been the leading writer in Picasso's circle of friends, though his work soon was eclipsed by Apollinaire's poetry.

Jacob's friendship with Picasso began to fail by 1920, when Picasso's greater celebrity separated the two. …

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