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A deep dive into Picasso’s Blue Period at the Phillips Collection

The artist painted human misery in these undeniably compelling images, but was his empathy genuine?

Pablo Picasso's “The Soup,” 1903. (Art Gallery of Ontario/Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
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“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” sprawls out of the Phillips Collection’s top-floor special exhibition galleries into the old mansion, where it takes two more rooms to chart the progress of the artist’s early years in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. It is an ambitious show organized with the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it was first seen last October after a 15-month pandemic delay.

The focus is on three paintings, including the Phillips’s 1901 “The Blue Room,” and Ontario’s 1902 “Crouching Beggarwoman” and 1903 “The Soup.” The last of these is the strongest of the three and reveals the artist’s astonishingly rapid development in just a few years. It also best demonstrates the scholarly effort of curators Kenneth Brummel and Susan Behrends Frank to connect lessons learned from complex imaging of the canvasses to insights about the artist’s methods, materials and motifs.

But the exhibition has generous parameters and includes works both predating and following the Blue Period of 1901-1904. Early Parisian paintings, including several made for Picasso’s first big international exhibition in 1901 at the Galerie Vollard, suggest in their riot of colors and madcap brushwork the speed with which the young artist was appropriating the visual world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas. At the time, Picasso (1881-1973) was still a teenager and seemed to be working almost recklessly, with more exuberance than focus.

The Blue Period arrived not with a single work, but with a change in attitude, not just to Picasso’s color palette, but to women. Nudes seen straight on, women with painted faces, overdressed companions to rich, bored men give way to more isolated, melancholy figures. In “The Blue Room,” we see Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster of May Milton, a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, on the wall near a solitary woman bathing in a wide blue tub. The frenetic spectacle of Paris’s nightlife seems to be fading into a shadowy world of perpetual blue twilight.

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Later Blue Period works, made after the 1901 “The Blue Room,” suggest that sympathy for poverty replaces desire as Picasso’s primary focus. Or maybe not. The curators see a moral evolution in the young artist, a growing awareness of social misery and a greater sense of empathy. Picasso was often desperately poor during this period, and in his visits back to his homeland, Spain, he encountered dire social conditions, hunger and unrest. He also spent time in Paris haunting the women’s hospital-prison of Saint-Lazare, where prostitutes and victims of venereal disease were detained. He would credit his time there as a source of visual inspiration for some of his key Blue Period works.

In the Blue Period, women are often clothed or emotionally shrouded, or seen with their backs turned to the viewer, and generally less exposed to the traditional male gaze. They hunch over their work, or sink deep into a contained, sculptural crouch. As Picasso’s palette became more relentlessly monochromatic, space itself seemed to squeeze these figures into more compressed forms, containing them with a dark penumbra of rich blue, as if the world could not allow them even a little air or light.

Is it empathy that drove him? I don’t find most of the adjectives commonly applied to these works at all apt. Are they sad? Melancholy? Are they “blue” in the sense we often use that word to describe an emotional state? I sense more of the artist’s solipsism, his own late-adolescent despair, than any deep connection with these women as people.

The dark lines of alienation that surround these figures detach them from the world, from reality, from any relationship to other poor people. They wear their rags of blue rather like the harlequins and circus figures of the subsequent Rose Period will wear their rags of motley. They are in costume to play the role of pure abjection, expressing the painter’s inner state more than any genuine state of poverty in the real world. Their isolation and solitude aren’t just a visual distillation of the figure to its elements, but are also designed to reassure us — the art consumer — that these poor people aren’t dangerous. They aren’t gathering, comparing notes, connecting in the streets or doing anything in the aggregate that might destabilize the world of art collectors.

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One must necessarily have a love-hate relationship to these works, which are undeniably compelling, so much so that they have redefined how we think about the color blue and what it means to be alienated and alone. But in masterworks such as “The Soup,” there is a profound disconnection between the figures: a child who makes a winsome gesture with her right leg, and a maternal form, head bowed and face expressionless, who offers the steaming bowl as an act of charity.

There seems more taking than giving in this image, more a vision of youth grasping than a mature act of kindness and love. The last stage of human misery is the war of all against all, the jungle or state of nature, in which everything is defined by the need for raw survival. An artist may feel that not just because he is poor, but also because he pines for fame.

Scientific analysis and imaging of “The Soup” suggests at least two layers of distinct images beneath the final one. In one, a second female figure is visible next to the child, perhaps a reference to another Blue Period theme — of a mother and child or children by the sea. More intriguing are the remains of what may have been a still life and tabletop, and possibly a reference to Honore Daumier’s drawing “The Soup,” from the 1860s. Picasso may have seen the Daumier in an April 1901 publication, curator Brummel argues.

Picasso reused painted canvases during this period, sometimes out of necessity. But he also seems to have developed ideas so rapidly that he often painted over first thoughts. Does “The Soup” suggest a deeper engagement with the more authentic social conscience of Daumier? Are these clues to the evolution of his thoughts, or are they, to use the artist’s own words, more evidence of paintings as “a sum of destructions”?

When Picasso used that striking phrase, he also described art as a kind of zero-sum game: What is eliminated in one work inevitably crops up in another. As the exhibition works its way out of the Blue Period, we see desire and the sensuous flood back in with the terracotta-hued nudes of the Rose Period. Whatever was going on in the Blue Period — genuine empathy or adolescent angst — is left by the roadside, cast off like an old beggarwoman crouched in the dark.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period Through June 12 at the Phillips Collection.