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Picasso's Three Musicians: Painting & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Introduction to the Painting
  • 0:55 Symbolism in the Painting
  • 3:05 Synthetic Cubism
  • 4:02 The Other Painting
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Picasso's ''Three Musicians'' is a famous painting, but do you know what style it represents? And did you know that there is more than one painting by this title? Get all the facts in this lesson!

Introduction to the Painting

Pablo Picasso was one of the most versatile artists of the early 20th century. His experiments with different styles and media resulted in some of the most celebrated and innovative works of all time. Picasso created the Three Musicians in 1921, while in Fontainebleau, a town outside of Paris, France. The work is composed of oil painting and collage, an artistic technique that combines different media to create a single piece of work, such as cutting images from a magazine and pasting them onto a sheet of paper.

The painting is very large, approximately six and a half feet high and over seven feet wide. It depicts three brightly colored figures seated around a table and set in a dark, box-like room that may be a stage. This version of the painting is currently hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Symbolism in the Painting

The three figures in this painting resemble characters from the Commedia dell'Arte tradition. This Italian theater form began in the 16th century and was still being used in the early 20th century. Its hallmark was to feature well-known stock characters, who were usually masked.

The blue and white clarinet player on the left is Pierrot, a naive clown who is always falling in love and getting his heart broken. His love interests often prefer the handsome trickster Harlequin, seen here in the center wearing the red and yellow colors of the Spanish flag and playing a guitar. As a suave, intelligent servant, Harlequin's character stands in stark contrast to the melancholic clown.

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso. MoMA, New York City.
Three musicians in a box-like room.

On the right is a singing monk. Although there is not a specific monk character in Commedia dell'Arte, they were often included in these theater performances. Sometimes the stock characters would wear the brown robes of a monk as a disguise. If you look carefully, you can see one more figure in the painting: a dog sprawled underneath Pierrot's chair. Although its face is hidden, you can see parts of its body peeking out from behind the musicians' legs and its shadow on the wall behind the musicians.

The previous year, Picasso had been hired to design costumes and sets for a ballet by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called Pulcinella, which was based on a Commedia dell'Arte text from the 1700s. It is likely that the inspiration for Picasso's use of Commedia dell'Arte characters in this painting came from this project.

Picasso also created this work as a tribute to two close friends. The Pierrot represents Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet who is considered a father of the surrealist movement. Apollinaire was a World War I veteran who was wounded in battle and died of Spanish influenza in 1918, three years before this painting. The monk is a representation of Picasso's former roommate, Max Jacob, another poet who had introduced Picasso and Apollinaire. Jacob had entered a Benedictine monastery earlier in the same year the Three Musicians was painted.

Synthetic Cubism

This work is an example of synthetic cubism, a movement created by Picasso and another artist named Georges Braque. It grew out of the more general trend of cubism, an avant-garde technique characterized by analyzing concrete objects, breaking them up, and then reassembling them in an abstract way. Objects are presented from different viewpoints, and the representation of these viewpoints is more important than a realistic representation of the subject itself. Synthetic cubism has these qualities as well, but was a simpler, more decorative, and flatter style than earlier cubist works.

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