Don't be deceived by this seemingly simple painting of a man and his instrument. Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist has secrets in its past and in its paint.
1. Picasso related to his penniless guitar player.
At 22, Picasso was overcome with a sadness that he projected on this piece, and many others from his Blue Period. He showed this through the monochromatic, flat representation. Picasso knew what it was like to be broke, spending most of 1902 in poverty.
2. It's bigger than you'd expect.
Contorted and cramped within the frame, you might think this Old Guitarist is presented on a small canvas, but it actually measures in at 48 3/8 x 32 1/2 inches, roughly four by 2 2/3 feet.
3. It appears that the man pictured is blind.
Observe his closed eyes, averted from the world and the instrument he plays. It's suggested that a key influence of The Old Guitarist was Symbolist literature, which often employed blind characters to suggest a vision beyond this world.
4. The disenfranchised was a theme of the Blue Period.
Marginalized and deprived people were often the subject pieces in the Blue Period. Picasso was especially intrigued by blindness and seemingly blind figures can be found in several of his works. The etching The Frugal Repast (1904) offers a blind man and a sighted woman sharing a sparse meal. A similar subject was tackled—minus the mate—with The Blind Man's Meal in 1903. Lastly, the 1903 portrait Celestina displayed a woman with one milky unseeing eye.
5. It could also be viewed as a self-portrait of sorts.
The only element of The Old Guitarist that is not devotedly blue is the man's guitar. Through his art, this isolated misfit finds solace. The brightness of the guitar could be seen to speak to how Picasso viewed his own art as a bright spot even in his darkest times.
6. The Old Guitarist's composition is a nod to El Greco.
As with all of the pieces from the Blue Period, this piece is directly related to the artist El Greco. Picasso was fond of the artist because he was overlooked by scholars in favor of other Renaissance and Mannerist painters of the time. The guitarist's head crooked at a jarring angle and legs curled in make him appear cramped within the frame. Art historians suggest Picasso chose this angular pose accented by elongated limbs as a nod to the celebrated 16th-century artist.
7. This piece may have inspired poetry.
Three years after The Old Guitarist was exhibited in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, American Modernist Wallace Stevens published the lengthy poem "The Man With The Blue Guitar." Despite a seemingly obvious link between the painting and the poem, Stevens denied any connection to Picasso's work, claiming, "I had no particular painting of Picasso's in mind and even though it might help to sell the book to have one of his paintings on the cover, I don't think we ought to reproduce anything of Picasso's."
8. There’s a woman hiding on the canvas.
If you look closely at the space above the guitar player's ear, through the blue-gray paint you might make out a forehead and eyes. This ghostly woman invited further study, so the museum that owns the painting, The Art Institute of Chicago, studied it in a conservation lab using infrared scans and X-rays to see what Picasso had painted over. What was discovered was an abandoned portrait of a nude young woman, seated and nursing a child from her right breast, as well as a calf and cow.
9. The Old Guitarist is the most iconic work of Picasso's Blue Period.
This chapter in the seminal painter's career began with Casagemas in His Coffin, which depicted his dearly departed friend in his final repose. From there came many more, solemn portraits of despair, desperation and desolation that have scattered to museum walls all over the world. But none has come close to surpassing the popularity of The Old Guitarist.
10. The Art Institute of Chicago made history with the painting.
The Art Institute of Chicago acquired the piece in 1926 in what turned out to be a pivotal moment for Picasso. The Old Guitarist became Picasso's first painting to be acquired by an American museum, and according to the Art Institute of Chicago, by all accounts it was also the first Picasso painting that any museum in the world acquired for its permanent collection.