Le Repas Frugal (The Frugal Meal) marks the beginning of Picasso’s outstanding career as a printmaker. Although Picasso had received only rudimentary training in this medium, and this was only the second etching he had ever made, Le Repas Frugal undisputedly counts among the most iconic works of 20th century graphic art.
In 1904 Picasso had moved from Barcelona to Paris. Trying to establish himself as an artist at the beginning of his career, he settled in Montmartre, and lived at the notorious Bateau-Lavoir in miserable conditions.
The image of the print is typical of Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ (1901 to 1904), named after his paintings of the time, which were dominated by sombre shades of blue and characterized by his sympathy for the social outcast and destitute.
An emaciated couple sits at a table with a dismal meal of wine and a few scraps of bread spread on a cloth before them. The man, who is probably blind, tenderly embraces the woman, turning away from her. The woman, apparently lost in thought, with a resigned look on her face, rests her chin on her hand. Fine lines and cross-hatchings accentuate nuances of light and shade, creating shadows, emphasizing the couple’s hollow faces and gaunt bodies.
The print’s motive is closely related to Picasso’s 1903 painting The Blind Man’s Meal (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), one of the most accomplished paintings of Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’, and a statement on human suffering. As Pierre Daix explained, the works of this phase represent “Picasso’s secular translation of the dramatic and religious tensions of El Greco into poverty and unhappiness.”
The Blind Man’s Meal, 1903
Oil on canvas
95.3 x 94.6cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rather than working with a fresh copper plate for Le Repas Frugal, Picasso scraped down and re-used one supplied by his friend Joan Gonzales. Traces of Gonzales’ earlier landscape motive can still be traced in the upper right corner of the image.
Picasso had only about 30 copies of Le Repas Frugal printed in 1904 by the highly regarded Eugène Delâtre. In 1911, the art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard bought the copper plate, had it steel-faced for reinforcement, and republished it in 1914 in an edition of 250 by Paris printer Louis Fort on Van Gelder paper. Another 27-29 copies were also printed on Japan paper. Along with eleven drypoints and two additional etchings, created between 1904 and 1906, Le Repas Frugal is part of a print series known as the Saltimbanques Suite.