La Vie (1903) by Pablo Picasso
Meaning of Blue Period Expressionist Painting of Casagemas

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La Vie (Life)
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

La Vie (Life) (1903)


Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso


Name: La Vie (life) (1903)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait Art
Style: Expressionist Movement
Location: Cleveland Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For an understanding of
expressionist paintings
by artists like Pablo
Picasso, please see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of La Vie (Life) by Picasso

This sombre work was painted by Picasso in Barcelona during his Blue Period, four years before Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and his subsequent invention - with Georges Braque (1882-1963) - of Cubist painting, namely Analytical Cubism (1909-12) and Synthetic Cubism (1912-14). At the time he was 22-year old unknown artist who had yet to make his mark.

An important example of expressionism, La Vie was Picasso's memorial tribute to his close friend Carlos Casagemas (1881-1901), a fellow Spanish art student who had accompanied him on his first trip to Paris (October 1900), where they established themselves temporarily in the Montmartre studio of Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), a friend from Barcelona. A moody individual with a taste for Nietzsche and a tendency to depression, Casagemas fell in love with an artist's model called Germaine Pichot (1880-1948). Germaine rejected his advances - either because she was already married, or because he was impotent. And so, on February 17th of the following year, when Picasso was in Spain, Casagemas went out to dinner with friends at the L'Hippodrome, and at about 9:00 p.m. stood up, gave a brief speech and then pulled out a pistol and shot Germaine in the head. Not realizing that the bullet had only grazed her temple, he then shot himself in the head. It was the death of his young friend that triggered Picasso's so-called 'Blue Period', and opened up a new chapter of Spanish Painting in Paris.

La Vie was not Picasso's first tribute to Casagemas. His first commemorative painting was Death of Casagemas (190l, oil on wood, Musee Picasso, Paris). This was followed by his first 'blue' painting, The Burial of Casagemas (oil on wood, Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), which was heavily influenced by the El Greco masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586, oil on canvas) which Picasso had just seen in the Church of Sainto Tome, Toledo.

After making numerous preparatory sketches and studies - see, for instance, his drawing Study for La Vie (1903, Indian ink on paper, Musee Picasso) - Picasso finally completed La Vie in late 1903. Its gloomy atmosphere fully reflected Picasso's preoccupation with life and death. Indeed, he seemed to be surrounded by signs of mortality: his younger sister had died of diphtheria in 1895; the painter Gauguin (1848-1903) had attempted suicide in 1897; two years later Hortensi Guell (1876-99) - another of his artist-friends - committed suicide; and in 1903, just as Picasso was starting La Vie, Gauguin died in poverty in the South Seas.

A comparatively large work measuring roughly 6-feet high and 4-feet wide, La Vie is a blue and white figure painting which appears to be set in an artist's studio. It contains four main elements. To the left is a naked couple who stand facing a robed mother (right) holding an infant. The couple appears to be Casagemas and Germaine, and they seem perfectly content together. However, in a gesture - now known to derive from Noli me Tangere (1525, Prado Museum, Madrid) by Correggio (1494-1534) - Casagemas points rather timidly towards the infant, as if to emphasize what might have been. In the middle, on the wall behind the two sets of figures, there are two paintings arranged one above the other. The lower one appears to depict a single, nude, sorrowful woman - reminiscent of the pen and ink drawing by Van Gogh (1853-1890) entitled Sorrow (1882, New Art Gallery Walsall); the upper one shows a pair of nude lovers, possibly girls, who seem to be holding on to each other for comfort.

La Vie - which, according to X-ray analysis, was repainted over one of Picasso's earlier works entitled Last Moments (1898), which he exhibited in Barcelona in 1899 - was well received and almost immediately purchased by Jean Saint Gaudens, a French art dealer.



Interpretation of La Vie

Art critics and historians have had a field day with all the symbolism in this picture, much of which we can only guess at. In simple terms, the meaning of La Vie can be found on two levels: as the artist's commentary on Casagemas; and as the artist's autobiographical view of himself and his life.

In the first interpretation, the couple (as stated above) represent Casagemas and Germaine. He is pointing to the family he will never have, while she embraces him - perhaps out of guilt (she became Picasso's lover when he returned to Paris) - while also avoiding eye-contact with the mother whom she cannot now be. The meaning of the two paintings is somewhat ambiguous. Clearly the bottom one symbolizes solitary misery, but who's? The top one suggests 'togetherness' but not necessarily happiness. Or is it Germaine trying to comfort Casagemas about their incompatibility as a couple?

Note: Germaine Pichot (full name Germaine Gargallo Florentin Pichot) (1880-1948) later appeared as one of the brash female figures in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). In 1906, some time after splitting up from Picasso, she married the Spanish Post-Impressionist painter Ramon Pichot (1871-1925).

As an autobiographical statement, the male figure represents the 'artist', that is to say Picasso; the girl is his lover Germaine. The mother and infant represents Picasso and his mother, when he was a baby. With his 'noli me tangere' gesture, the artist indicates the paintings on the wall, as if to say: "I have grown up and left home, and I am an artist. We now belong in two different worlds." In other words, Picasso contrasts the secure world of childhood, with the harsh uncertainties of adulthood, as pictorialized in the two canvases. The slightly timid pose of the man, as well as the picture's monochrome colour palette, indicates that Picasso was not entirely confident about his future, at least in the short term. Certainly he had no idea that he would become one of the best artists of all time, and the leading representative of modern art of the 20th century!

Note: Blue is traditionally (but not only) the colour of sadness and depression. It is also linked with 'foolishness' - by the 16th century painters Pieter Brueghel (1525-69) and Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72), and with 'Venus', the god of love, by Venetian artists like Titian (c.1485-1576) and Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556). Picasso himself used it later in the famous brothel scene known as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

Explanation of Other Paintings by Picasso

Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30)
Picasso's inventive approach to the Classical idiom.

Boy with a Pipe (1905)
Mysterious painting of 'little Louis'.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Early painting of the Parisian art collector.

Two Nudes (1906) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Primitivist sculptural study for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920) Musee Picasso, Paris.
Arguably Picasso's greatest work of neoclassicism.

Large Bather (1921) Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.
Inspired by Greek sculpture from the east pediment of the Parthenon.

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.
Classicist mythological painting of two Dionysian figures in ecstasy.

Woman in White (1923)
From Picasso's neoclassical period.

Guernica (1937) oil on canvas, Reina Sofia Art Museum, Madrid.
Picasso's celebrated anti-war mural.

Weeping Woman (1937) oil on canvas, Tate Collection, London.
Picasso's most famous Cubist portrait of Dora Maar.


• For the meaning of other expressionist paintings from Picasso's 'Blue Period', see: Homepage.

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