The Old Guitarist 1903–4 by Pablo Picasso, oil on panel 122.9 x 82.6 cm (48½ x 32½ in) Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, ny/ Scala, Florence / © Succession Picasso/dacs, London 2017. As reproduced in Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art

What was it with Picasso and Blue?

Find out how an early personal tragedy changed the 20th century master’s colour palette

Few colours have been so closely associated an emotion as blue, and few artists have made this link more clearly than Pablo Picasso.

Picasso was famous for adopting certain pigments during certain periods of his career. “Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions'" he reflected in the 1930s. Blue was the first colour to wholly dominate the artist’s work. Picasso took to the colour during the first few years of the 20th century, when he was a struggling young artist, and feeling melancholy himself.

“There may have been a connection to the struggling circumstances of Picasso’s own life at the time,” writes Stella Paul in our new book Chromaphilia: The Story of Colour in Art. These personal dramas included the shocking loss of a good friend, Carlos Casagemas, who committed suicide publicly as a result of unrequited love.

"It was thinking about Casagemas that got me started painting in blue," Picasso later remarked to friend and biographer Pierre Daix.


René Burri, Pablo Picasso (1957), Villa La Californie, Cannes, France
René Burri, Pablo Picasso (1957), Villa La Californie, Cannes, France

“Picasso painted in blue from 1901 to 1904, depicting destitute figures in various states of extremity, resignation and despair. Musicians, beggars, imprisoned prostitutes and other dispossessed individuals were his subjects, all bathed in the painter’s phosphorescent, cold blue halflight," writes Stella Paul in Chromaphilia.

Inspired by past art as well as by personal experience, Picasso described an artist as a kind of capacious receptacle, ever ready to cherry-pick whatever sparked his attention to create his own expression. There were times when one overriding colour set the terms. "A painter goes through states of fullness and evacuation," he said. "That is the whole secret of art. I go for a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau, I get 'green' indigestion. I must get rid of this sensation into a picture. Green rules it.’” Few works capture this period better than The Old Guitarist, which is reproduced in Chromaphilia

“The Old Guitarist is the material expression of something sad, disenfranchised and marginal,” explains Paul. “A twilight mood of low spirits is cast over the subject’s unnatural blue-tinted flesh, his garments and the ambient encompassing space. The angular gestures and attenuated limbs and features of this downcast, blind musician reinforce impressions established by the insistent blue colour.”

At other intervals in a long life of spectacular creativity, Picasso stripped away colour intensities to create subdued earth-toned paintings, and he periodically reduced painting to a simple range of greys ranging from black to white. Of course, there were also periods of full-throttle colour.


Chromophilia: The Story of Colour in Art
Chromophilia: The Story of Colour in Art

Chromophilia: The Story of Colour in Art uses 240 artworks as case studies to tell the story of ten individual colours or colour groups. It explores the history and meaning of each colour in art, highlighting fascinating tales of discovery and artistic passion, and offering easily accessible explanations of the science and theory behind specific colors.

To accompany each of our colour stories inspired by Chromophilia we're pulling together a small Phaidon selection of works by colour that are affordable on Artspace.

Today's works are all blue and all are just over or way under £1000 / $1,300. Many of them are by well-known names, among them Alex Katz, Yves Klein, Wim Wenders, Josef Albers, Keith Haring, Maurizio Cattelan, Tracy Emin, Yinka Shonibare, David Shrigley, Stephen Shore, Sarah Sze, James Welling, Peter Blake, Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy and Joan Miró

So that's all blue, all under £1000/$1,300 and all here. (Other colours and price points are, of course, available). Buy Chromophilia here and look out for the next colour story in our new series and check out the art on Artspace.