Formal Analysis: Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”

Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist is oil on panel, and about 48 inches by 32 inches. It was painted between 1903 and 1904 when Picasso was 22 years old. Picasso painted this during the Blue Period of his life. The painting is of an old, fatigued man playing the guitar. The painting is mainly made up of light and dark blues, creating a sullen atmosphere. Picasso creates shadows with the dark blues, carving out sharp contours in the guitarist’s face, neck and hands, and shows the source of light coming from above and near the guitarist’s head with light blues and white. The only thing in the painting that is not blue is the guitar, which is brown. This makes the guitar stand out against the rest of the painting, as if it is the only thing that is keeping the guitarist alive. There is also a difference in how Picasso paints the guitar compared to the guitarist and the background. The guitar is very flat and almost cartoonish, and there isn’t much shading that Picasso put into it. This seems to bring more attention to the actual guitarist rather than the guitar.

There is also a progression from light to dark in the painting. Picasso uses a lot of white and light blues toward the left, especially near the guitarist’s head, and then progressively uses darker and darker blues toward the right. It is almost black to the farthest right of the painting. This may suggest that the guitarist is still very much alive in his thoughts, but his body is decrepit; perhaps it suggests his situation is out of his control.

Picasso not only uses shadows and extreme contrast of blues to convey the guitarist’s despair, but his use of lines and angularity show this as well. The guitarist’s body is curved and sickly thin, his bony shoulder sticking out of a hole in his shirt. His head is bent down and parallel with his crossed leg, showing the man is tired and fatigued. Although there are visible lines separating the guitarist from the background and a clear angularity to his body, the colors and shading within these lines are very much blended. The colors flow from white to light blue to dark blue. This may be why Picasso chose to use oil rather than another material to paint with, since oil is easily blended. There is no choppiness in Picasso’s brushstrokes; in fact, they seem to be very consistent and long. There are some blotches in the background, but it only seems to be to create a shadowy effect. In addition to the plain, flat guitar, the blurry background also suggests that Picasso’s main focus for The Old Guitarist is indeed the guitarist himself.

Picasso’s use of long brushstrokes creates a sense of movement. It is clear the man is playing the guitar, but through the use of his blue palette creates a sense of sadness. There is movement, but it is not fast or joyful, it is slow and melancholy. The rip in his clothing suggests he may be very poor, and his body being so thin may suggests that he is not well fed.

All in all, the painting is very much naturalistic, which enhances the misery of the man in the painting. The wrinkles in his face, neck and hands are all things we could see on an actual person. Picasso paints the man with either his eyes closed or no eyes at all, suggesting that maybe the man is blind. This would go back to the assumption that this may suggest that the man is in a situation beyond his control.

Picasso paints this man in a very straight forward point of view, with the viewer looking at the guitarist head on. The guitarist looking away and down also creates a sense of shame from the man. However, Picasso seems to have painted this sitting down near the man, which creates a sense of sympathy for the guitarist. The clear focus of the painting being the guitarist himself and especially the use of white and light blue in the area of his head, is also suggestive that Picasso may have seen something in this man. Perhaps he saw hope and more than meets the eye in the downtrodden and poor.

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