VIDEO: A Moment in Art History – Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques – Picasso’s first Masterpiece?

In this Moment in Art History, we’ll talk about Picasso’s early work and the way his Rose Period was influenced by his brightening prospects and a French circus. Some have argued that with its heroic scale and drama, Family of Saltimbanques is the first Piece in which Picasso set out to create a masterpiece. Did he succeed?


Art in the background of this video Plein Air Landscapes by Mark White:

Stylized Landscape by Carolee Clark:

Fused Glass by Sandy Pendleton:

Glass Flower by Ana Maria Botero:

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. My very first reaction when I saw the ‘Family of Saltimbanques’ was ‘Oh they are so lonely!’.
    It’s about dichotomy . Just in ‘Hiding In Plein Site’ (also the title of one of my paintings) it evoques in me ‘Loneliness In A Crowd’ and the fact that the crowd is the family makes it even more sad, more somber.. just like his colors. Yes, although it represents Picasso’s ‘rose’ period the colors are quite somber too.

  2. Thank you, Jason, for this art history moment. I have been a fan of Picasso all my life and yes, the Saltimbanques piece does seem forlorn. I’ve always thought something must have happened during a performance where someone was harmed. I love all his work, especially, his assemblages/collages and his many sculptures. We visited his museum in Paris and saw much of his most famous works
    …bringing tears to my eyes.

  3. I’ve loved this painting for years. I believe it highlights various but artificial rolls each member plays in the circus. The look on the clowns face, for example, hardly depicts a jovial clown. It says to me that the circus is hard somewhat empty work that the family is perhaps trapped in.
    The Renoir girl Circus performers you show after you talk about the circus has a much different feel
    To it. I’ve seen it many times. It’s at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my favorite museums.

  4. So is Family of Saltimbanques a masterpiece? Unquestionably YES!! – in addition to being a powerful emotional work of loneliness while in a group (Edward Hopper would have absolutely loved and idolized this work), it is a work of incredible craftsmanship – with almost no “fleshed out” facial details, he creates a powerful feeling in these faces with the viewer feeling exactly what Picasso intended you to feel.

    And in addition, the work summarizes his main themes up to then, having allusions to both his blue period and rose periods (small boy in blue coat, large heavy-set figure in red – the red figure almost “pushing out” the smaller more lonely blue figure, as his rose period pushed away and left behind his blue period) and then goes on to foreshadow some of his future themes – his many harlequin series works that came later and his bathers series that also came later – I don’t think that is just co-incidence, but rather planed by Picasso, or definitely from his subconscious thoughts). I just perused a very large set of Picasso’s works on (which has all his artworks grouped by year) looking for one of my very favorite Picasso’s (one of his Harlequin portraits) – though I couldn’t find it – perhaps it’s not even in his catalog raisonne – because it was in the private collection of William “Bill” Paley (the former CEO of CBS network, when that company was one of the largest American companies), and he may never have allowed anyone to photograph it – but there it was, all 6 feet high of it, when I stepped out of the elevator into the lobby of his 2 story, 10,000 sq foot 5th Ave duplex in NYC – the elevator doors open, and you are in a room that tis about 15″ by 50′ with absolutely nothing in it, and nothing on the dull red walls but this huge Picasso harlequin figure 6 feet high in purple, blue and white staring directly at you – talk about the power of context – I will NEVER forget this painting! (the painting was indeed great, but seeing it suddenly appear in front of you in a huge room of a private residence with absolutely nothing else in it certainly added to its dramatic effect).

    My one other incredible interaction with a Picasso, was in the Time-Life Building in NYC, when I had an appointment Gjon Mili, a friend of my father’s, and a very renowned photographer for Life Magazine, about the possibility of a summer job during my college years. I’m sitting with him in his absolutely cluttered tiny cubicle of an office, and I notice a sculpture of Mili sitting on his desk. it seemed to be an exact likeness of his face, but its just a 2 dimensional spiral of wire about 6 inches in diameter – yet there his face was – abstract clearly, but very recognizably the man in front of me – I asked Mr Mili about it – he say’s “Oh that! It’s a portrait of me Picasso did while we were talking about and planning our project (Mili was going to do a series multiple exposure photos of Picasso “painting” with a flashlight in a dark room) – and while we were talking Picasso picked up a wire coat hanger that was lying on the table of my hotel room, un-twisted it, and proceeded during the next 15 minutes as we spoke to twist it into this sculpture, in a seemingly absent-minded way as one might make a doodle on a notepad while on the telephone!” Well, let me tell you – that was one of the finest sculptures I have ever seen – it was nothing but a bent wire – but it was a very very exact portrait of this man. It was so recognizable as him he could have just photographed it to use as his passport picture.

    1. Thank you for this exposition and for sharing your very special experiences with this painting and, indirectly, with the Man himself. What a privilege! Memories to cherish.

      1. Hi Bela – You’re welcome. I’m wondering if any of Picasso’s works had a special effect on you – let me know – doesn’t need to be a “fantastic” story, just any incident where one of Picasso’s works affected you deeply. [could be when you saw one of his works in a museum that really moved you ]

      2. PS – I clicked the link to your post (ie: your name), got a link to your work – I especially liked “A Walk in the Park” and “A Spring Garden”- really fine work! (unfortunately I’m not a buyer, I’m a photographic fine artist myself, and don’t even have a postcard sized space in my NYC apartment for any artwork I like, because it’s entirely filed up with my own work – with 30+ artworks just begging for their own wall space and jealous of the artworks up there). But I just wanted you to know that I really appreciated your work! [link to my artwork on SaatchiArt if you’re interested –

  5. I am a Picasso fangirl – and have come a very long way from the 18 year old who looked at my airplane seatmate reading a book about him and said with such surety, “Oh, Picasso – I don’t think he’s very good – do you?” Now I have 19 books about PP sitting across me and I have read every word, some skeptically, but voraciously, nonetheless. If any of you EVER get the chance, visit the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. It’s like a candy store for those of us who either love – or respect – this remarkable, groundbreaking man, who pushed every single day and accomplished so much from which so many artists today have benefited. I could never choose one work. There was so much there it was dazzling. From the very early pieces in which you can see the good draughtsmanship that underlay everything to the late works which were, perhaps, not so great artistically, but in which the strength of gesture remains and in which he never feared to disclose himself, it’s an amazing experience. Thanks for your post.

  6. I have admired this piece for many years and find it interesting on so many levels. It clearly shows the way Picasso developed his composition. The three figures on the left are united and rest on one plane. The two in the middle are connected and sit on another different plane. The woman on the right seems to be almost floating on another plane. Picasso was involved in the negative and positive relationships and was not so much working from one united reference. It is almost as if it came to him in stages. This large work was an ambitious work for a young Picasso and was sort of a turning point for him. He submitted this piece to the French salon exhibition, however reluctantly pulled it out at the last minute, feeling that it was not good enough. There is a haunting feeling about it which I personally find compelling. I want to know these people and relate to them, however the artist gives us no way to do so, which makes it all the more compelling.

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