Collection Comparisons: Picasso’s Harlequins

In the Collection Comparisons series, we pair one work from Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland with a similar work from the Phillips’s own permanent collection.

Collection Comparison_Picasso_Harlequin-Jester

(left) Pablo Picasso, Harlequin with Black Mask, 1918. Oil on wood, 45 5/8 x 35 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Pablo Picasso, The Jester, 1905. Bronze, overall: 16 1/8 x 14 x 8 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1938; © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Aritsts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Painted in Pablo Picasso’s Montrouge, France studio, Harlequin with Black Mask at left above, shows the artist’s embrace of classicism and the motif of the harlequin, which first appeared in his Sketchbook No. 59 in 1916. Also in 1916, French writer Jean Cocteau dressed as a harlequin to invite Picasso to participate in Parade, his project for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although a harlequin never appeared in Parade, Picasso painted one at the center of the huge curtain designed for the ballet, which may have inspired this painting.

Karl Im Obersteg and Duncan Phillips were also fascinated by this theme in Picasso’s work. In October 1923, Im Obersteg acquired Picasso’s Seated Harlequin (no longer in the collection) from Paul Rosenberg in Paris. Some 15 years later, Phillips purchased the sculpture The Jester (not currently on view at the Phillips) from Buchholz Gallery for $685.

Early Ballet Films

Degas thought of himself as a painter of movement. As lovely as his paintings are, his dancers are frozen in their poses, beautiful bugs in amber. What if we could go back in time to watch a performance?

When motion pictures were invented, the camera was focused on anything that moved – trains, people, horses, and yes, dancers. There are no movies of ballet dancers during the late 19th century, but there are a precious few of ballet during the early 20th (close enough). With film, a famous dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet could be watched anywhere over the globe, or, a century later, delight us over the internet.

La Sylphide solo 1903

Pas de Deux 1902

Dance exercises at the barre 1920

And this beguiling couple….
Geltzer & Tikhomirov, husband and wife in the Bolshoi Ballet – Pas de Deux

This last performance reminds that, aside from the dance master, there are no male dancers in Degas’s ballet scenes. This recalls Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti, in which there are few, if any, men depicted. Was Degas, like Gauguin, creating his own private paradise?

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant