Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Picasso’s The Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso. The Old Guitarist, late 1903–early 1904. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Don't be deceived by this seemingly simple painting of a man and his instrument. Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist has secrets in its past and in its paint. 

1. Picasso related to his penniless guitar player. 

At 22, Picasso was overcome with a sadness that he projected on this piece, and many others from his Blue Period. He showed this through the monochromatic, flat representation. Picasso knew what it was like to be broke, spending most of 1902 in poverty. 

2. It's bigger than you'd expect. 

Contorted and cramped within the frame, you might think this Old Guitarist is presented on a small canvas, but it actually measures in at 48 3/8 x 32 1/2 inches, roughly four by 2 2/3 feet. 

3. It appears that the man pictured is blind. 

Observe his closed eyes, averted from the world and the instrument he plays. It's suggested that a key influence of The Old Guitarist was Symbolist literature, which often employed blind characters to suggest a vision beyond this world.  

4. The disenfranchised was a theme of the Blue Period. 

Marginalized and deprived people were often the subject pieces in the Blue Period. Picasso was especially intrigued by blindness and seemingly blind figures can be found in several of his works. The etching The Frugal Repast (1904) offers a blind man and a sighted woman sharing a sparse meal. A similar subject was tackled—minus the mate—with The Blind Man's Meal in 1903. Lastly, the 1903 portrait Celestina displayed a woman with one milky unseeing eye. 

5. It could also be viewed as a self-portrait of sorts. 

The only element of The Old Guitarist that is not devotedly blue is the man's guitar. Through his art, this isolated misfit finds solace. The brightness of the guitar could be seen to speak to how Picasso viewed his own art as a bright spot even in his darkest times. 

6. The Old Guitarist's composition is a nod to El Greco.

As with all of the pieces from the Blue Period, this piece is directly related to the artist El Greco. Picasso was fond of the artist because he was overlooked by scholars in favor of other Renaissance and Mannerist painters of the time. The guitarist's head crooked at a jarring angle and legs curled in make him appear cramped within the frame. Art historians suggest Picasso chose this angular pose accented by elongated limbs as a nod to the celebrated 16th-century artist.

7. This piece may have inspired poetry.

Three years after The Old Guitarist was exhibited in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, American Modernist Wallace Stevens published the lengthy poem "The Man With The Blue Guitar." Despite a seemingly obvious link between the painting and the poem, Stevens denied any connection to Picasso's work, claiming, "I had no particular painting of Picasso's in mind and even though it might help to sell the book to have one of his paintings on the cover, I don't think we ought to reproduce anything of Picasso's."

8. There’s a woman hiding on the canvas.

If you look closely at the space above the guitar player's ear, through the blue-gray paint you might make out a forehead and eyes. This ghostly woman invited further study, so the museum that owns the painting, The Art Institute of Chicago, studied it in a conservation lab using infrared scans and X-rays to see what Picasso had painted over. What was discovered was an abandoned portrait of a nude young woman, seated and nursing a child from her right breast, as well as a calf and cow.

9. The Old Guitarist is the most iconic work of Picasso's Blue Period.

This chapter in the seminal painter's career began with Casagemas in His Coffin, which depicted his dearly departed friend in his final repose. From there came many more, solemn portraits of despair, desperation and desolation that have scattered to museum walls all over the world. But none has come close to surpassing the popularity of The Old Guitarist.

10. The Art Institute of Chicago made history with the painting.

The Art Institute of Chicago acquired the piece in 1926 in what turned out to be a pivotal moment for Picasso. The Old Guitarist became Picasso's first painting to be acquired by an American museum, and according to the Art Institute of Chicago, by all accounts it was also the first Picasso painting that any museum in the world acquired for its permanent collection. 

C. Fritz/MC
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings
C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

King Features Syndicate
10 Things You Might Not Know About Hägar the Horrible
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For 45 years, the anachronistic adventures of a Scandinavian Viking named Hägar have populated the funny papers. Created by cartoonist Dik Browne, Hagar the Horrible is less about raiding and pillaging and more about Hägar’s domestic squabbles with wife Helga. If you’re a fan of this red-bearded savage with a surprisingly gentle demeanor, check out some facts about the strip’s history, Hägar’s status as a soda pitchman, and his stint as a college football mascot.


Richard Arthur “Dik” Browne got his start drawing courtroom sketches for New York newspapers; he debuted a military strip, Ginny Jeep, for servicemen after entering the Army in 1942. Following an advertising stint where he created the Chiquita Banana logo, he was asked to tackle art duties on the 1954 Beetle Bailey spinoff strip Hi and Lois. When he felt an urge to create his own strip in 1973, Browne thought back to how his children called him “Hägar the Horrible” when he would playfully chase them around the house. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” he told People in 1978. Hägar was soon the fastest-growing strip in history, appearing over 1000 papers.


A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Working on Hi and Lois with cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) gave Browne an opportunity to solicit advice on Hägar from his more experienced colleague. As Walker recalled, he thought “Hägar” would be too hard for people to pronounce or spell and suggested Browne go with “Bulbar the Barbarian” instead. Browne brushed off the suggestion, preferring his own alliterative title.


When Browne came up with Hägar, he sent it along to a syndicate editor he knew from his work on Hi and Lois. According to Chris Browne, Dik’s son and the eventual artist for Hägar after his father passed away in 1989, the man originally promised to look at it after he got back from his vacation. He changed his mind at the last minute, reviewing and accepting the strip before leaving. Just days later, while on his ski vacation, the editor had a heart attack and died. If he hadn’t approved the strip prior to his passing, Browne said, Hägar may never have seen print.


A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Chris Browne recalled that Halloween in his Connecticut neighborhood was a time for kids to show their appreciation for his father’s work. While trick-or-treaters were busy covering nearby houses in toilet paper or spray paint, they spared the Browne residence. The only evidence of their vandalism was a spray-painted sign that read, “Mr. Browne, We Love Hägar.”


Vikings were not known for being advocates for human rights. Hägar, despite his relatively genteel persona, still exhibited some barbaric traits, such as running off with “maidens” after a plundering session. Speaking with the Associated Press in 1983, Browne admitted he toned down the more lecherous side of Hägar after getting complaints from his daughter. “Running off with a maiden isn’t funny,” she told him. “It’s a crime.”


A soda can featuring Hägar the Horrible

Despite his preference for alcohol, Hägar apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth as well. In the 1970s, King Features licensed out a line of soda cans featuring some of their most popular comic strip characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Hägar. The Viking also shilled for Mug Root Beer in the 1990s.


In 1965, Cleveland State University students voted in the name “Vikings” for their collegiate basketball team. After using a mascot dubbed Viktorious Vike, the school adopted Hägar in the 1980s. Both Hägar and wife Helga appeared at several of the school’s sporting events before being replaced by an original character named Vike.


A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

When Dik Browne was working on Hägar, the Viking was prone to bouts of excessive drinking. When Chris Browne took over the strip, he made a deliberate decision to minimize Hägar’s imbibing. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hägar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow, and as times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore,” Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”


It took some time, but Hägar was finally honored with the animated special treatment in 1989. Cartoon powerhouse Hanna-Barbera created the 30-minute special, Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best, and cast the Viking as being out of his element after returning home for the first time in years. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, performed the title character. It was later released on DVD as part of a comic strip cartoon collection.


A Wizard of Id comic strip
King Features Syndicate

In 2014, Hägar made an appearance in the late Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id comic strip, with the two characters looking confused at the idea they’ve run into one another at sea. Hägar also made a cameo in Blondie to celebrate that character’s 75th birthday in 2005.


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