Pablo Picasso Three Musicians Fontainebleau, summer 1921

  • MoMA, Floor 5, 513 The David Geffen Wing

This intricate, jigsaw-puzzle-like composition features variations on stock characters from the Italian comic theater tradition known as commedia dell’arte. At left, a masked Pierrot plays the clarinet and strumming a guitar at center is Harlequin, a figure Picasso often treats as a stand-in for himself. They are joined by, at right, a singing monk holding sheet music and, hiding below the table, an outstretched dog. The levity of these clown-like figures is countered by the painting’s somber palette, which lends an air of melancholy to the scene.

Gallery label from 2024
Additional text

At the left of a bare and boxlike space, a masked Pierrot plays the clarinet. At the right, a singing monk holds sheet music. And in the center, strumming a guitar, is a Harlequin, in Picasso's art a recurring stand-in for the artist himself. Pierrot and Harlequin are stock characters in the old Italian comic theater known as commedia dell'arte, a familiar theme in Picasso's work. The painting, then, has a whimsical side, epitomized by the near-invisible dog: its head is about halfway up the canvas on the left, one of several subtle browns, and we can also make out front paws, a hind leg, and a jaunty tail popping up between Harlequin's legs. Overall, though, the work's somber background and large size make the musicians a solemn, even majestic trio.

The intricate, jigsaw-puzzle-like composition sums up the Synthetic Cubist style, the flat planes of unshaded color recalling the cutout and pasted paper forms with which the style began. These overlapping shapes are at their most complex at the center of the picture, which is also where the lightest hues are concentrated, so that an aura of darkness surrounds a brighter center. Along with the frontal poses of the figures, this creates a feeling of gravity and monumentality, and gives Three Musicians a mysterious, otherworldly air.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 101.
Oil on canvas
6' 7" x 7' 3 3/4" (200.7 x 222.9 cm)
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
Object number
© 2024 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Painting and Sculpture

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The artist
Paul Rosenberg's private collection, Paris. Purchased from the artist in fall 1921 - 1949
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased from Rosenberg family with Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1949

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