The Devastating Loss That Inspired Picasso's Blue Period

On the evening of February 17, 1901, in a cafe in Montmartre, a young and troubled artist named Carles Casagemas brandished a gun and fired it at his girlfriend. To avoid the bullet, she ducked under the table. Thinking he’d killed her, Casagemas shot himself in the head. Miles away, in Madrid, 19-year-old Pablo Picasso was informed of the death of Casagemas. The two men were best friends. Picasso was devastated. Casagemas’s suicide was a crucial event that helped inspire Picasso's Blue Period.

While many are familiar with Picasso’s Blue Period and know that it represented a time in the famed artist’s career when he focused on melancholy subjects, like poverty, sorrow, and the downtrodden of society, few may know that it was the death of Casagemas that plunged the artist into this world of profound despair. Picasso once said that “it was thinking of Casagemas’ death that started me painting in blue.” 

Picasso was grief-stricken and also haunted by guilt at leaving his depressed and unstable friend only three weeks before Casagemas’s suicide. In his grief, Picasso did many strange things. He used Casagemas’s studio in Montmartre and became lovers with Germaine Gargallo, the woman Casagemas shot at on the night of his suicide. He seemed to be inhabiting Casagemas's life. Unsurprisingly, his obsession with Casagemas extended to his art. Four crucial paintings of the Blue Period depict Casagemas and represent Picasso’s intense mourning for his friend.

Two portraits focus on the immediate aftermath of Casagemas’s suicide and show the young man in his coffin, the bullet wound visible on the right temple. Since he was not there when his friend committed suicide, Picasso created these images of Casagemas from his imagination. They seem to be a way for Picasso to come to terms with the death of his friend, to stare at the dead body, to confront the reality that Casagemas is truly gone. The first painting contains red and gold, but Casagemas’s flesh is a ghostly bluish-green. By the second painting, Casagemas and his surroundings are soaked in blue, a sign that Picasso is becoming consumed by sorrow and deepening his attachment to the color itself. 

Pablo Picasso - The Death of Casagemas, 1901

Pablo Picasso - Casagemas in his Coffin, 1901

These are cathartic, necessary works that Picasso needed to get out of his system. The two portraits of Casagemas, and one of his funeral, were all painted around the same time in the fall of 1901, just months after Casagemas died. In the throes of a raw and overpowering grief, Picasso painted and painted, and the Blue Period began to form out of this deep and wounding pain. In "The Death of Casagemas: Early Picasso, The Blue Period, Mortality, and Redemption," David J. Chalif writes that, “close inspection of these [...] paintings reveals the rapidity of their creation and the frenzy of emotion in the brush of their creator. Rapid and explosive strokes are applied to panel and cardboard, perhaps the only surfaces available to Picasso at the instant moment of this catharsis and attempt to purge guilt and absolve memory.”

Another important painting from Picasso’s Blue Period that focuses on Casagemas’s death is The Burial of Casagemas, a long vertical painting that is epic in scope. While the earlier paintings had centralized Casagemas’s body on its own, the burial painting gathers people around him, and the upper part of the canvas explodes with activity; there are prostitutes and a horse and a woman holding a child. Chalif observes that “The ambivalence and tension about mortality is depicted in the balanced halves of The Burial of Casagemas. Death is countered with life, entombment with sexuality, and solitude with intimacy. Perhaps as a mechanism to assuage his own guilt and fears of mortality, Picasso first depicts death and then rejects it." Perhaps the Blue Period is notable because it is a rare instance when Picasso contradicts his later, more famous image of virility and brash masculinity. The Blue Period shows a Picasso who is not defiant against death, but a man who is deeply unsettled and devastated by it. 

Pablo Picasso - The Burial of Casagemas, 1901
Picasso’s last painting about Casagemas serves as a tribute to his lost friend. In La Vie, painted in 1903, at the latter end of the Blue Period, Picasso gives us a living Casagemas as opposed to one in a coffin or a shroud. Chalif writes that “Magically, Picasso changes himself into Casagemas, revives and resurrects him, makes Casagemas potent and sexual, and gives him a child. The canvas suggests the mysterious and supernatural. It is Picasso’s ultimate absolution for the suicide, his gift to Casagemas, his catharsis, and his apology.” One of the great things about art is how it allows us to imagine other worlds and to make those worlds real through words, paint, and other mediums. In La Vie, Picasso gives his tragic friend a new life, a second chance. What if, on that night in February 1901, things had gone differently? What if Casagemas had lived? In life, we can’t change these tragedies but, with art, we can imagine and dream and create alternative outcomes. Picasso restores Casagemas’s life as a way to mourn his death.

Pablo Picasso - La Vie, 1903

I would argue that the Blue Period was essential in shaping Picasso into the painter he became because it allowed him to exorcise inner demons and to get closer to realizing his own artistic vision. Grief acted as a creative catalyst that transformed a struggling artist into a truly great one. Even today, although they are not his most famous paintings, the works of the Blue Period continue to resonate with people because they capture the melancholy, sadness, and despair that many of us feel. Picasso did not turn away from the death of his dear friend. Instead, he chose to delve deeper into his grief and to let it fuel him as an artist. The Blue Period was not just about Picasso painting the marginalized of society, it was about a grief-stricken man mourning his dead friend and using art to both express his despair and to bring himself back to life.