Le Repas frugal
Le Repas frugal (Bloch 1)
Etching and scraper printed on Van Gelder Zonen wove paper with Van Gelder Zonen watermark
From the Suite des Saltimbanques, edition of 250 of the second (final) state
Printed by Fort, 1913
Published by Vollard, 1913
Image: 18 1/8 x 14 3/4 inches
Sheet: 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 inches
(Bloch 1) (Baer 2.II.b.2)

Le Repas frugal was Picasso’s first major attempt in printmaking. Created in September 1904 (at the young age of twenty-two), it shows his inherent skill and early talent as a printmaker. Never having received formal training in printmaking, Picasso made his first prints with the help of his friend, the artist Ricard Canals. To make this image, Picasso’s second etching, he and Canals scraped down an old zinc plate previously used for a landscape composition by Joan González (brother of the sculptor Julio González), a Spanish artist who lived in the Bateau Lavoir studios in Paris alongside Picasso. The scraping-down was not completely thorough: tufts of grass from the earlier etching may be seen in the upper right area of Picasso’s print, floating in the background behind the woman’s head and shoulders.


Between the first state—proofed in September 1904—and the second—worked in Auguste Delâtre’s Paris studio that same month, Picasso made no major corrections, merely accentuating the lighting and adding some hatching to the background and redefinition to the man’s arm. Little commercial interest was shown in Delâtre’s first edition of approximately thirty and the plate was bought in September 1911 by Ambroise Vollard, along with another fourteen plates of mainly circus themes. In 1913 Vollard had these plates steelfaced to make them more durable, and printed by Louis Fort on Japon in an edition of 27 or 29, and on Van Gelder Zonen wove paper in an edition of 250. Entitled the Suite des Saltimbanques, a series of fifteen loosely-related etchings and drypoints created in Paris between 1904 and 1905, the images in this suite are distinguished by an astonishing economy and elegance of line.


Le Repas frugal depicts a dispirited couple sitting together before a meager meal of bread and wine in an atmosphere of lonely isolation. Although the man’s left arm extends around the woman’s shoulders to hold her body close to his, and his right hand rests protectively on her right arm, his face is turned away from her (and the centre of the composition), so that he appears to stare despondently out of the picture frame. More self-contained, the woman looks fixedly at something before her and slightly to her left, so that her face also is turned partially away from her companion. Her intense focus on something only she can see, and her inward-folding arms—her right hand supporting her left elbow and her left hand supporting her chin—increase the sense of mutual (internal) loneliness between the couple, despite their physical closeness. Their features are haggard and emaciated—their gaunt faces and long, attenuated limbs and especially fingers are exaggerated almost to the point of caricature in a style reminiscent of El Greco (1541-1614), one of Picasso’s early influences. The strong contrasts and finely cross-hatched lines further emphasize the couple’s bony and frail physiques, as do the carefully delineated elements of their frugal meal.


With very few exceptions, Picasso did not title his prints. First entitled L’Aveugle (The Blind Man) by André Level in his 1928 publication Picasso, this iconic image later became known as the Le Repas frugal, although the author of this title is unknown. The imagery relates to several of Picasso’s Blue Period paintings, which dwell on themes of poverty, alcoholism, misery and blindness, created during a time when, impoverished and depressed, in newly self-imposed exile from his home country, the artist closely identified with the unfortunates of society. The figure of the blind man reappears frequently in Picasso’s work of this period, and the sunken eye socket of the male figure in Le Repas frugal bears a strong resemblance to that of the subject in his 1903 painting The Blind Man’s Meal (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Likewise, the mannerist treatment of anatomy, gestures and hands is common to Picasso’s work of this period. With his Spanish Catholic background, Picasso would have known well the sacramental associations of bread and wine, and it seems clear that the title does not refer simply to the lack of food on the table, but has more spiritual and emotional resonances. Although it is difficult to be certain whether the man in this image is actually blind, as Brigitte Baer notes, it is of very little consequence because, ‘the “frugality” is elsewhere. Between the two of them, nothing is shared, no interaction takes place. They just sit numbly … touching but never truly in contact.’i The starkly empty background behind the figures accentuates the pared-down poignancy of this universal theme.

i Brigitte Baer, Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection, Dallas Museum of Art, 1983, p.33.