The three musicians and dog conjure a bygone period of bohemian life, enjoyed here by Picasso in the guise of a Harlequin flanked by two figures who may represent poet-friends of the artist: Guillaume Apollinaire, who had recently died, and Max Jacob. The patterned flatness of the work is derived from cut-and-pasted paper, and stands in stark contrast to the sculptural monumentality of Picasso’s Three Women at the Spring, also painted in the summer of 1921.
Gallery label from 2011
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