Les Saltimbanques

The Acrobatic Street Performers

Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
 1905, Paris
Medium: Drypoint on copper
Dimensions: Print 288 x 327 mm, 11.3 x 12.9″; sheet 509 x 656 mm, 20.0 x 25.8″
Signature: Signed in the plate.  (The edition was not hand-signed on paper.)
Selected references:
Bloch 7
Baer 9 II b2, the second of two states
E.A. Carmen, Jr., Picasso: The Saltimbanques, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, ills. p. 31
P. Daix + G. Boudaille, Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods; NY Graphic Society, 1966, ills. p. 255.
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: The Early Years 1881-1907; Könemann, 1985, ills. p. 400.
D. Wye, A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art; MOMA, 2010, ills. p. 26.
Edition: From the unsigned edition of 250 on Van Gelder wove printed by Louis Fort for Vollard in 1913. There was also an unsigned edition of 27 or 29 on Japan laid, and, prior to steelfacing, also about a dozen mostly signed proofs.
Paper: Van Gelder Zonen wove, untrimmed
Watermark: Van Gelder Zonen
Impression: Fine
Condition: Fine (narrow band of mild toning from sunlight just peripheral to the platemark; unobtrusive graphite pencil inscription by another hand at bottom left edge; minimal skinning from removed hinges, top edge verso, framed
Price: Upon request

Not all of the Saltimbanque Suite depict those eponymous acrobatic street performers.  Rather, the main element they have in common is that they are the 15 consecutive drypoints and etchings that comprised Picasso’s first serious foray into printmaking.  They also derive from 1904-05, bridging his Blue and Rose Periods.  Two of the works are simply portraits of Madeleine, Picasso’s brief consort of that time.  But just as Picasso’s Rose Period is also known as the Circus Period, so too do most of the these prints depict these charming performers.

Les Saltimbanques, the beautiful drypoint at hand, represents the most fully realized expression of Picasso’s fascination with this charming demi monde, depicting almost the entire cast of characters whom he immortalized.  As such, it is arguably the most iconic image of the entire Suite.  Picasso occasionally captured their actual performances, e.g. Au Cirque (Bloch 9).  However, just as throughout his career he emphasized the mundane above the precious (see “The Water is the Wine”; https://ledorfineart.com/blog/the-water-is-the-wine/), here too in his early career he was demonstrably more often interested in recording  slices of the daily life of these performers.  While a boy practices balancing on a circus ball under the watchful eyes of an adult harlequin, two mothers are caring for their infants while two toddlers wrestle at their feet.  Nearby a pregnant woman and her daughter carry firewood, while the grandmother prepares a meal.  A circus horse grazes in the background, adding a pastoral element to this idyll.  Picasso made several wonderful drawings and paintings of this family, all (or all but one) of which are in museum collections.  But this drypoint is the only available Picasso which illustrates the whole extended family (sans the adorable fat clown).  The fact that this is one of the few images of the Saltimbanque Suite that Picasso signed in the plate perhaps attests to the significance that Picasso himself accorded to this beautiful artwork.  It was certainly considered significant by the curators of the MOMA.  Notably, this is one of the few prints that they chose to display in the MOMA’s 2010 retrospective of Picasso prints (see ref. above) as well as to illustrate in the highly selective exhibition catalog, both drawn from their vast Picasso print collection.  (The catalog illustrated but about 5% of Picasso’s original prints.)

Picasso’s saltimbanques have been widely celebrated, and much has been written about them.  One landmark exhibition devoted to them at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC was presumably catalyzed by the presence in their collection of the largest painting of the Circus Period, La Famille de Saltimbanques:

Family of Acrobats oil on canvas, 1905

La Famille de Saltimbanques
oil on canvas, 1905

In that exhibition catalogue (p. 18), the authors explain, “The French term saltimbanque derives from the Italian saltimbanco which is a combination of saltare (to leap), in (on), and banco (bench). By its origin, saltimbanco not only indicates that the entertainer was athletic but also suggests he was itinerant, as his only stage was a portable bench.”

But for the best understanding of this period, I turn as I often do to Elizabeth Cowling, who writes in Picasso: Style and Meaning:

“On settling in Paris Picasso’s first problem was to find a suitable new subject matter.  It had to be markedly different from his tragic, quasi-religious Spanish imagery; it must not plunge him back into the iconography of nineteenth-century realism…; it ought to have a French, and ideally a classical, flavour, but it must not be at all academic.  His answer was to concentrate on the rackety but picturesque existence of traveling street entertainers and circus troupes, and to make clowns, acrobats, bareback riders, harlequins, and their like his heroes and heroines…..  Thanks to Fernande Olivier and other friends, we know that although he avoided the mainstream theatre and ballet while he lived in the Bateau Lavoir, Picasso loved going to the circus, hanging out with the clowns and acrobats in their favorite haunts, and listening to their entertaining stories about life on the road…..

“Not that Picasso depicted his circus cronies and their way of life objectively or accurately….  He presented them as standardized types—the skinny but elegant harlequin; the pretty, fragile, girlish mother; the famished boy-acrobat with his dreamy expression; the fat, avuncular clown; the undersized adolescent bareback rider, and so forth.  He invented scenes for them which may have had a distant connection with the realities of circus life but in which mundane reality is transformed into enchanting myth—the picaresque, plebeian equivalent to Classical mythology.

“Picasso’s desire to return to a more classical style of expression led him back to drawing in which he had first learned the rudiments of the classical idiom.  In gouaches such as Harlequin’s Family and Harlequin’s Family with an Ape

Famille d'Acrobates avec Singe

Famille d’Acrobates avec Singe,
gouache, watercolor, pastel and
India ink on cardboard, 1905

a new classicizing note is sounded: both are geometrically ordered and symmetrical; the relationship of figures to ground is clearly expressed, and mass and space are evenly balanced, producing an overall decorative harmony; the drawing is elegant, incisive and economical; the mood is tranquil, if tinged with melancholy.”

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