Visual Descriptions

Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. Fontainebleau, summer 1921 60

Oil on canvas, 6' 7" x 7' 3 3/4" (200.7 x 222.9 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Narrator 1: 6–0. Three Musicians. Painted in 1921 by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973. Oil on canvas. 79 inches wide by 88 inches in height. 201 x 223 cm.

Narrator 2: This is a big painting—about the height of a door; and just a bit wider than it’s tall.

The setting is a bare—dark brown space—rather like the inside of a box. Or a stage set. The floor is a lighter brown color. In center stage are three musicians facing forward. The figures take up almost the entire composition. They’re not at all naturalistically painted. Picasso composes the figures of flat, overlapping planes of color. It looks like he has cut out lots of pieces of colored paper into geometric shapes and stuck them onto the canvas to make a sort of collage or jigsaw puzzle—though, in reality, it’s all painted. And, in fact, the brushstrokes are clearly visible.

Unscrambling the jigsaw is quite a challenge, because of the way the painted shapes overlap. Only gradually does one make out three men, apparently in elaborate costume. The two leftmost figures are dressed as familiar characters from the old Italian comic theater, known as Commedia dell’Arte. The figure on the far right is dressed as a monk.

Beginning with the figure on the viewer’s far left, we see a clarinet player wearing the white costume of Pierrot, the sad clown from the Commedia dell’Arte. He wears a cone–shaped white hat and a black eye mask. His hands holding the gray clarinet are disproportionate to the rest of his body – the size of a mouse’s paws. Pierrot would normally have a white painted face; but, here, both face and hands are almost as dark brown as the background of the painting. These features – tiny hands, brown skin – are true of all three characters.

Turning now to the figure in the middle. He wears the orange –and– gold diamond–patterned costume of Harlequin, another stock pantomime character. He’s playing a guitar, which has an ochre body, a black and brown neck, and black strings. The guitar’s quite easy to make out, and so is Harlequin’s body. But his face is a puzzle: a large expanse of blue paint, with two holes cut into it for brown eyes, creates an eye mask. But the mask spreads to the left, covering various parts of the first figure’s face and body. A mesh of white crisscross lines below the eyeholes suggests a beard. The head is topped off with a semi–circle of black—a skullcap perhaps.

The figure on the far right is dressed as a monk in a long black hooded habit. His face, under its pointed hood, is made up of a long, irregular rectangular block of gray. It looks as if two holes have been cut for brown eyes, and a square hole for a brown nose. The lower section of the rectangle is composed of vertical wavy gray lines – again, like a stylized beard. His little mouse–paw hands hold a white sheet of music with black colored staves and notes on it, with the staves and notes facing the viewer. It’s a wide, rectangular page and he’s holding it at either end.

There’s one more character, almost hidden in the painting—it would be very easy to pass by and miss it altogether. It’s a large brown dog, lying stretched on the floor at the left, behind the legs of the musicians. At the far left, near the edge of the painting, about half way up, is a shadow of the dog’s head. It’s a black silhouette shown in profile, facing to our left. We see two pointy erect ears, a long snout, and an open mouth. The dog’s brown body is flecked with black brushstrokes indicating hairs. Its small, jaunty tail flicks upwards between the Harlequin’s legs in the center of the canvas.

Narrator 1: To hear the Collection Tour audio on this work, press 5–1–0.

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