The mirror-thingie of young Picasso

 I began to peruse the five-volume edition that I just wrote about from from the book about Magritte, but I was most interested in Picasso – also because I already wrote about Magritte, Dali and Matisse (and there is nothing to write about Van Gogh who has created only one ‘mirror’ during his life).  Picasso was the only one of those five master I never managed to write, yet.

I decided to browse through the volume about the Spanish master, and already the very first painting I bumped into has forced me to jump up – what a serendipity! It was apparently depicting the very same ‘thing’, the so-called (non) mirrors I just made the large presentation about! (or at least I think it depicts the one).

The picture above shows this very painting; it is by Picasso, although it’ s quite difficult to associate it with the typical artist’s work as we know them, and only art historians/critics or very devoted fans would recognize this work.

The object of my particular interest in this work was this ‘thing’ that hangs above this poor woman; a mirror? an icon? As often happens, I again didn’t get the exact answer about what it is, but learned many other interesting things, so the posting.

To start with, below is a more accurate representation of the painting (the one above is made by iPhone, from the book, thus has some blicks):

This is one of the very first ‘real’ large paintings by Picasso. It was created in 1897, when he was only 16 years old (and he started it while being fifteen). The painting is the culmination of of some sort of the earliest period of Picasso, before he went to study in Madrid (I am not planning to start repeating here the very basic facts of his biography, the article about the artist in wikipedia is not without reasons considered ‘exemplary well-written’, so I’d suggest to consult it in case of questions.)

This is a completely realistic work (with some stretch I could even describe it ‘socialist realism’), there is nothing here that could point to the works of late Picasso; as I said, without mentioning the author, very few people would even guess whose work it is.

It is known that it was his father, himself teacher of drawing, who gave the very first lessons in painting to young Picasso – and he deservedly appear in this painting, as a doctor. We also know lot of other things about this work: when and where it was created, who was the model for each character, and many other uselessful information. And it is not an exception, but more a confirmation of the rule, we know a lot about life and works, from the early childhood. Picasso considered himself a true genius from the very beginning of his life, and did everything possible to enter the history with a huge archive of all and everything about himself (which, incidentally, gives me some hope that I can eventually figure out what it is that hangs on this wall).

Like many other early works by Picasso, the painting is now on display in his museum in Barcelona (Museu Picasso), which he himself endowed it in 1970 (quite amazingly, but he kept this work with through all his life).  As you see, it’s quite a big painting, it measures 2 to 2.5 meters:

The official title of the work is Ciencia y Caridad, Science and Charity. Its subject is very ambivalent, and the painting as such can easily go to the TAT-like projective test. One can read it as a “struggle of two opposing forces, science and religion, for the patient’s life.” But it could as well be interpreted as  “True care for a person requires using all possible paradigms”, or something like that. Or something else that would suit your taste at this given moment. Or it can be seen without any morality, simply as a realistic domestic scene (the latter is unlikely, though, as realism without (meta) morality does not exist).

We known that Picasso was deeply involved in the process of making this painting, and for long time. As I wrote, he made ​​his father as a model for the doctor, and he invited a street beggar with a child to sit for the role of ‘sick woman’ (we even know the fee he paid, 10 pesetas).

We also have the very first sketches of compositions pained with charcoal, and few first studies, first watercolors, and then in oil.

This is one of the earliest version, a small drawing:

It differs quite significantly from the final composition, and one can make a lot of interesting conclusions. But I’m mostly interested in the objects on the walls. On the right wall we see – a picture? a mirror? And on the left wall, above the woman’s head I would suggest a crucifix (either unfinished, or removed at a later stage):

In the next version all these objects are gone, they simply don’t have space in the new composition where the nun is moved moved closer to the woman’s head:

The next known versions are the variations of the same theme, and we again don’t see any objects on the wall:

Worth having in mind that these are relatively small works, roughly A4 in size.

And then Boom!, and we see a huge “object” in all its glory in the final version, without any preliminary sketches or studies:

Now, what is it, exactly?

My bet is that it is the same “mirror” I just wrote about; or in other wolds, a special religious, sacred object, which was hanging in the headboards, or near the beds. In the past these objects could be made without any mirrors, then start incorporating them (initially convex mirrors, or simply glasses), and then could drop the reflective mirrors surfaces again.

I can’t say with any certainty if this Picasso’s object has a mirror; perhaps, it’s ‘just a picture’, a sort of icon. Needless to say, I would love to know what was the name of it in the time of Picasso, and ideally also in the distant past (and specifically when these objects did contain mirrors).


Moving further from the “mirror” topic of this painting, it was apparently a very important work for Picasso, and literally his masterpiece, that is, the work that he was officially pronounced as a painter. He didn’t join any guild, but got a kind of medal when this work was completed.

The critics noticed, of course, that the picture wasn’t really so good; it was ok for the young painter, but contained lots of mistakes. Picasso, as usual, has neither forgotten, not forgiven all those criticisms – even in the old age he quoted by heart the sarcastic epigram written by one of the critics, who noticed that this doctor apparently measures the pulse through the ‘glove’ (mocking a poor depiction of skin).

But Picasso painted so much good stuff after that that we could not be bothered less with these early omissions. Speaking about the amount of ‘good stuff’, I somehow sense a few VERY LARGE postings ahead…


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