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. In 1921, Jacob entered a monastery, in essence severing his ties with the art world. Jacob's decision may have reminded Picasso of his earlier days with both friends. Many scholars now agree that friendship and/or nostalgia is one of the themes of Picasso's Three Musicians. Picasso portrayed himself, characteristically, as a harlequin, dressed in the yellow and red colors of the Spanish flag. Jacob appears in the robes of the monk. In the second version of Three Musicians (now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Jacob wears the particular robes of his religious order. Having painted Apollinaire before as the poetic Pierrot, Picasso employed this disguise again to symbolize his lost friend.
Pablo Picasso created thousands of artworks in media ranging from paintings and sculptures to etchings and ceramics. He embraced a wide variety of subjects relating to the full range of human experience. He helped invent styles, including Cubism, and introduce processes, including collage, which have remained crucial to the art of our time.
Born on October 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain, Pablo Picasso was the first child of Jose Ruiz Blasco and Maria Picasso Lopez. His father was a painter, art teacher, and curator at the Municipal Museum in Malaga. After his family moved to Barcelona in 1895, Picasso studied at the same art school where his father taught. In 1900, Picasso traveled to Paris, where he became a leader of the avant-garde and met other artists, including the writer Gertrude Stein and painter Henri Matisse. During his first years in Paris, Picasso painted melancholic and mysterious groups of figures. Many of these paintings from his "Blue" and "Rose" Periods relate the experiences of traveling circus performers and social outcasts. Already at this time in Picasso's life, the harlequin began to assume its role as an alter ego for the artist.
A major shift in his art coincided with his meeting the painter Georges Braque in 1907. In fact, between 1907 and 1914, these two artists would work so closely that they would refer to themselves jokingly as Wilbur and Orville. Through their constant interaction, they developed the revolutionary style of painting known as Cubism.
From 1955 until his death in 1973, Picasso spent much of his time living in the south of France. His art was seen internationally in large exhibitions, and on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, a selection of works were put on view in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. During the 1950s, Picasso became very interested in painting his own interpretations of old master paintings, including Diego Velasquez's Las Meninas and Eugene Delacroix's Women of Algiers. These works attest to Picasso's continuing fascination with artistic traditions of earlier times, as well as his devotion to the human figure as the most complex and resonant subject for the artist.
Ashton, Dore. Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Daix, Pierre. Picasso: Life and Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Rubin, William, ed. Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
RELATED ARTICLE: Looking at the Painting
Like many traditional group portraits, the Three Musicians portrays three men seated around a table, looking out towards the viewer. Their masked faces occupy the upper quarter of the canvas, and the colored angular shapes beneath these heads suggest parts of their costumes.
The left figure wears sleeves and leggings decorated with red and yellow triangles. The middle figure wears a white costume and pointed hat; light blue shapes suggest shadows falling across his left arm and the printed music on the table in front of him. The figure on the right is dressed in a hooded brown robe with a rope belt.
Each figure holds a musical instrument. The figure on the left seems ready to play the violin he holds beneath his chin. The central figure holds a clarinet before his grinning mouth, and the robed figure on the right holds an accordion on its side in his lap. In his other hand, he holds a glass.
RELATED ARTICLE: Questions about the Painting
1. Who are these people? What do their costumes tell you about them?
2. What are they doing? How do you know?
3. How does the painting make you feel when you look at it? Does it seem bright and cheerful? Mysterious? Scary? Jazzy? What makes it feel that way?
4. Did Picasso make the people and objects in the painting look "real?"
5. What is different about the way these people and objects look in the painting than they would look in life? Choose a person or object, and make a list of all the things Picasso changed.
6. Do the people and objects in Picasso's painting look rounded and three-dimensional?
7. What is it about the way that Picasso painted the picture that makes the things in it look flat?
8. Although Picasso's painting is made of flat shapes, some objects do appear to be in front or behind others. What object seems to be in front of all the others? How do you know? What comes next?
9. Picasso thought carefully about the arrangement of the colors in his painting. What are the main colors of the picture? Choose a color and follow it through the picture. Where did your eye travel?
RELATED ARTICLE: Activities
1. Create a collage of a single figure or group of figures from precut geometric shapes.
2. Compare the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Three Musicians with the New York Museum of Modern Art's version. How are they similar and different?
3. Listen to some recordings of various styles of music, such as Classical, Jazz, and Folk, that utilize some of the instruments (violin and clarinet and accordion) being played in the Three Musicians. Which music can you imagine the three musicians playing? What is it about the style of the music that feels the same as the painting?
Middle and High School
1. Create a three-dimensional version of the Three Musicians from cardboard.
2. Create a portrait of a friend or a self-portrait in disguise like Picasso did. Discuss why you chose the character you did and how it relates to your friend or yourself.
3. Research Picasso's friends Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. Read some of their writings.
4. Collect and compare several reproductions of works by Picasso that include harlequins and other carnival and circus performers. Discuss their similarities and differences. What observations can you make about Picasso's art from them?