PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
oil on canvas
14 X 9 1/2 in. (35.5 x 24.1 cm)
Family of the artist
Jacques Doucet, Paris
Josephine Hartford Bryce, New York; Estate sale, Christie’s, London, 26 June 1996, lot 272
Anon. (acquired at the above sale); sale, Christie’s, New York, 10 May 2001, lot 384
Maspro Art Museum, Japan, acquired at the above sale
Christie’s New York, Impressionist and Modern (Day Sale), 5 May 2005, lot 337
Private Collection, California, acquired at the above sale
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Oeuvres de 1917 à 1919, Paris, 1949, vol. 3, no. 286, p. 100 (illustrated)
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso from the Ballets to Drama (1917-1926), Barcelona, 1999, p. 497, no. 376 (illustrated, p. 128)
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: From Cubism to Neoclassicism, 1917-1919, San Francisco, 1995, p. 180, no. 19-28 (illustrated)
New York, Jacques Seligmann & Co., 20 Years in the Evolution of Picasso 1903-1923, November 1937, no. 13 (illustrated)
Cubist works on canvas are among the most highly coveted of Picasso’s works due to their scarcity and iconic style. In 2015, the record-setting sale of Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) for $180 million set a new apex for the Picasso market. As the demand for works by one of art history’s most recognizable names increases, early cubist paintings become even more desirable.
Les Communiants finds itself at a crossroads – painted a year after the end of World War I and at the tail end of Picasso’s exploration of analytic and then synthetic cubism. During this transitory time, Picasso also explored two seemingly competing styles: cubism and neoclassicism. For Picasso, who could effortlessly adopt different styles, the use of neoclassicism was a vehicle in which to investigate new themes and subjects. Of this included the subject of Les Communiants, the first communion of two youths.
Picasso returned to this theme, and this scene in particular, in various styles. The neoclassical example Les Premier Communiants (1919) is at the Musée Picasso in Paris. The differences between these two works, explored below, showcase the strength and spectacular vision of Picasso.
When we think Picasso, certain images and ideas come to mind – bodies broken up, angles, and dominant geometry. But what does it mean to look at a Picasso? It is a question we will return to at the end. First, we must contend with the context of Picasso, particularly as it pertains to this painting from 1919.
Born on October 25, 1881 in Málaga, Spain, Picasso was the son of a painter. In 1895, he and his family moved to Barcelona where he studied at La Lonja and fell in with the artistic group at the influential café Els Quatre Gats. Picasso visited Paris several times from 1900 before finally settling in the city in 1904, kicking off important artistic relationships and artistic endeavors. It was during this time in the City of Lights that Picasso developed his Blue and Rose period before diving into Cubism and painting the landmark Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Les communiants finds itself at a crossroads – created a year after the end of World War I and at the tail end of Picasso’s exploration of analytic and then synthetic cubism. What is cubism? Its invention attributed to Picasso and Georges Braque, the movement approached representation in a new way, bringing different but simultaneous perspectives of the subject. The end result is a seemingly fragmented object – multiple viewpoints combined at the same time within the same space. There is a suggestion of three dimension on a flat surface without resorting to illusion.
During this transitory time, Picasso also explored two seemingly competing styles – cubism and neo-classicism. This push and pull between the two riled critics of the artist who accused him of pandering to public taste. The aftermath of the Great War brought efforts for a “return to order” including the re-emergence of a new classicism in which Picasso participated. Nevertheless, for Picasso, who could effortlessly adopt different styles, the use of neoclassicism was a vehicle in which to investigate new themes and subjects. Of this included the subject of Les communiants, the first communion of two youths.
The communion was not just a theme that Picasso returned to but this scene in particular. In addition to the cubist style, Picasso also painted the scene using a neo-classical perspective. The two paintings share many of the same elements – the location of the two children, the clothing, the use of the chair and bible. Picasso would be no stranger to repeating the same subject in order to exhaust every possibility.
However, it is the differences which showcase the strength and spectacular vision of Picasso. In the cubist painting, Picasso has added a dynamic background and the figures become less children and more studies into time and space – a two-dimensional representation of beings that exist in three dimensions, four including time. The effect is to create figures more human, more substantial than the more representational work. Perhaps this is why Picasso chose to sign the cubist painting but never signed or exhibited the neoclassical work which now resides in the Musée Picasso in Paris.
And of the subject itself? A first communion seems at odds with what one normally considers a Picasso – women, nudes, drama. Yet, this theme of taking communion fits neatly into Picasso’s overall work and reveals his deep fascination of religion in his work. We cannot ignore his early training which included copying religious Old Master paintings as well as his upbringing in the heavily Catholic Spain. Picasso mined the corrida or bull fight for its religious connotations rooted deep within Spanish culture. The artist would also paint numerous crucifixions including his series of interpretations of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion.
We must now return to our original question. What does it mean to look at a work of art? That is to say, how do we look at a painting of Picasso? Perhaps paradoxically given the words written above, we are all capable of interpreting and reflecting on art if we are willing to engage with the work – to look at it with fresh eyes, over and over.
Often dismissed as something a child could do, his works brim with meaning and complexity. Picasso drew upon not just his own life and experiences but upon the whole human experience. So, then, when we look at a work by Picasso, just the work and us, only Picasso and ourselves, each side brings with it its own histories of life.
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), oil on canvas, 96 x 92 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Painted the same year as Les communicants, this work is an example of Picasso’s synthetic cubism. “The Guitar” (1919), oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 32 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“Les Premiers Communiants” (1919), oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. Musée Picasso, Paris.
Picasso in 1908 in his workshop in Montmartre, Paris.
Catalog and Video
Fueled by an insatiable demand for top tier works, the Picasso market has achieved an impressive upward trajectory in recent years. In 2015 the record-setting sale of Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), 1955, for $180 Million set a new apex for the Picasso market.
It is important to note that the finite supply of Picasso paintings available is further limited because over half of the works are already in museum collections. The Picasso Museum in Paris alone was gifted half of the artist’s estate after a deal made with the French Government and the Picasso family. These paintings will rarely come to market, along with thousands of works already in public collections worldwide.
As evident in the graph by Art Market Research, one can see that Picasso’s market appreciation has sustained a healthy return of 732.2% since 1976, or an annualized compound rate of return of 4.8%.
Cubist works on canvas are incredibly rare and among the most highly coveted of Picasso’s works.
Top Results at Auction
Comparable Paintings Sold at Auction
- Strong result for a watercolor on paper, which are less valuable than oil paintings on canvas
- Smaller than Les Communiants
- High result attributable partially to the desirable date of 1911
- Bland colors but traditionally cubist and beautifully rendered
- Work on paper (generally less valuable than canvases), same date (1919) as Les Communiants
- Sold for almost $3 million in 2018, strong colors and composition similar to Les Communiants
- Slightly larger, but still done in small scale
- Painting on canvas smaller than Les Communiants by almost half
- Same year and style, similar color scheme – colorful
- Achieved $1.5 million in 2011, and Picasso’s market is improving
- Similar in size to Les Communiants
- Darker colors than Les Communiants not as exciting
- Subject is a still life which is less exciting than human subjects
- Achieved $1.46 million in 2013, and Picasso’s market is improving
Related Works in Museums
The definitive authority on the authenticity of paintings by Van Gogh, the Van Gogh Museum inspected this painting in January 2020 and provided this letter of authenticity. During that inspection, X-ray revealed a second painting under the surface – a portrait of a man.