Pablo Picasso

The Three Dancers


Pablo Picasso 1881–1973
Original title
Les Trois Danseuses
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2153 × 1422 mm
frame: 2232 × 1507 × 107 mm
Purchased with a special Grant-in-Aid and the Florence Fox Bequest with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society 1965

Display caption

With its emphasis on violence and sex, The Three Dancers was greatly admired by the surrealists. It started off as a realistic representation of ballet dancers rehearsing. While Picasso was working on it his old friend Ramon Pichot died. Twenty years earlier, Pichot and another friend, Carlos Casagemas, fell in love with the same woman, Germaine Gargallo. Casagemas took his own life, having first shot at Gargallo. Recalling these events transformed Picasso’s approach. The distorted angular figures, harsh colours and thickly worked paint surfaces seem to express violent emotions.

Gallery label, April 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Pablo Picasso 1881–1973
T00729 Les Trois Danseuses (The Three Dancers) 1925
Inscribed 'Picasso' b.l. (the signature was added in 1965, shortly before the picture was dispatched to England)
Oil on canvas, 84 3/4 x 56 (215 x 142)
Purchased from the artist (Special Grant-in-Aid and the Florence Fox Bequest) with the aid of the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the CAS 1965
Exh: Picasso, Galeries Georges Petit, Paris, June-July 1932 (168) as 'La Danse' ; Kunsthaus, Zurich, September-November 1932 (162); Picasso: Forty Years of his Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 1939-January 1940 (190, repr.) as 'The Three Dancers'; Art Institute of Chicago, February-March 1940 (190, repr.); II Bienal, Sao Paulo, December 1953-February 1954 (Picasso room 17, repr. in special illustrated catalogue); Picasso: Peintures 1900-1955, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, June-October 1955 (66, repr.); Picasso 1900-1955, Haus der Kunst, Munich, October-December 1955 (57, repr.); Rheinisches Museum, Cologne, December 1955-February 1956 (57, repr.); Kunsthalle, Hamburg, March-April 1956 (57, repr.); Picasso: 75th Anniversary Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, May-September 1957 (works not numbered, repr.); Art Institute of Chicago, October-December 1957 (works not numbered, repr.); Philadelphia Museum of Art, January-February 1958 (110, repr.); Picasso, Musée Cantini, Marseilles, May-July 1959 (35); Picasso, Tate Gallery, July-September 1960 (110, repr.); Hommage à Pablo Picasso, Grand Palais, Paris, November 1966-February 1967 (137, repr.); Picasso, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March-May 1967 (64, repr.); Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, London, January-March 1978 (9.63, repr.)
Lit: Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art (New York 1946), p.143, repr. p.142; Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso (Paris 1952), Vol.5, No.426, repr. pl.171; The Tate Gallery Report 1964-65 (London 1966), pp.7-11, 49-50, repr. in colour on cover; Françoise Levaillant, 'La Danse de Picasso et le Surréalisme en 1925' in L'Information d'Histoire de l'Art, XI, No.5, pp.205-14, repr. p.206 and detail p.210; Ronald Alley, Picasso: The Three Dancers (Newcastle upon Tyne 1967), repr. in colour on cover, and detail repr. p.7; Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Theodore Reff, Robert Rosenblum, John Golding and others, Picasso 1881-1973 (London 1973), pp.11-34, 46-7, 78-85, repr. p.76
Repr: La Révolution Surréaliste, I, No.4, 15 July 1925, p.17 as 'Jeunes Filles dansant devant une Fenêtre'; Wilhelm Boeck and Jaime Sabartés, Picasso (London 1955), p.203 in colour

'The Three Dancers' was painted in 1925 at a crucial moment in Picasso's development. It follows the most serene and classical phase of his art which lasted from about 1917 to 1925 - a period when he was working concurrently in two quite different styles, a decorative form of late synthetic Cubism on the one hand and a neo-classical figure style on the other. 'The Three Dancers' owes something to both of these, but its special significance is that it marks a break-away from the serene, classical phase and the beginning of a new period of emotional violence and expressionist distortion. As Alfred Barr has written: 'The metamorphic Three Dancers is in fact a turning point in Picasso's art almost as radical as was the proto-cubist Demoiselles d'Avignon'.

Each of the dancers is treated in quite a different manner. The central figure is much the least distorted, but even so her body is simply a flat silhouette like a metal cut-out which has been slightly twisted in a few places to give a suggestion of three dimensions. The extreme thinness and elongation of the body, especially noticeable in the treatment of the legs, together with the pallor of the colouring, which shades from pale flesh pink to pale pinkish grey in the lower parts of the legs, helps to convey an impression of extreme frailty. The figure, in its nakedness, has an almost ghostly, insubstantial quality, a pathetic vulnerability. To judge by the breasts, this dancer must be female, but the sex is not in the least emphasised.

The style in which the right-hand figure is painted is rather different, being for one thing closer to synthetic Cubism. This is particularly apparent in the way the body is divided into clear-cut, contrasting areas of white, chocolate-brown and black, like some of the Cubist still lifes of about 1922; these form contrasting colour planes which interlock. Their division is partly based on an arbitrary separation of the areas in the light from those in the shadow. The white area starts at the top with the upraised arm and continues down the body like a broad cloth tape which twists at the hips, passes underneath the upraised leg and ends as the second, supporting leg. The brown section is surmounted by a tiny, helmet-like, almost featureless head which is entirely surrounded and engulfed by another, much larger black head of a completely different character. This black profile fills the space between the upraised arms. The relationship between these heads is so ambiguous that one cannot be certain whether they are intended to be in the same plane or whether the black head is situated behind the other one as a separate personage; an ambiguity which applies equally to the black area extending down the back, to the right, and to the black patch alongside the upraised leg. This figure is very angular in treatment and dances with a high-stepping, lively motion; yet the double head gives it a mysterious, withdrawn character. There is some doubt as to whether it is meant to be clothed or not, but, in any case, the impression is predominantly masculine.

Much the most extraordinary dancer, however, is the one on the left - surely one of the strangest figures Picasso ever painted. She is unmistakably female and is naked apart from a skirt or wrap around her waist. She dances with a much more frenzied action than either of the others, with her head and torso thrown back and her left leg kicked up behind her. One of her breasts is shown from the front, surrounded by a black shape which makes it look like an eye, while the other is seen from a different viewpoint, in profile and in shadow. The patch of blue sky encircled by the body and the right arm (like a tambourine), with its curious disc of red and white stripes in the centre, echoes the breast motif, while another patch of sky and a railing lower down, glimpsed through the skirt, allude in an even more intimate way to the femaleness of the sex. Particularly remarkable is the rendering of the head, which is one of Picasso's most extraordinary and surprising inventions. The frontal view is terrifying and mask-like, with wild staring eyes, a gaping mouth and savage teeth. This image seems to be partly based on African sculpture, such as the wooden heads and masks made by the Ekoi tribe of Southern Nigeria, the most distinctive feature of which is a half-open mouth and a double row of cruel, widely-spaced teeth. But the head in Picasso's painting also incorporates another image which is not so easy to pick out at first sight: namely the profile head like a crescent moon on the left. This is itself a complete mask-like head but on a vertical axis instead of a horizontal one, and with little direct connection with the rest of the anatomy. Moreover, whereas the frontal view is savage and vehement, this head is gentle and dreamy, even pretty, expressing an entirely different mood. The treatment of the body of this left-hand dancer is subject in many areas to brutal, expressionist distortions of a most arbitrary kind, such as the twisting and writhing outline of the torso, the displacement of the neck to one side of the body, and the invention lower down of an unexplained shape like a saw, with a serrated edge. It is as though the violence of the dancer's emotions was coming out all over her body. She is charged with an extraordinary animal vitality and expresses a paroxysm of movement and emotion like one possessed.

Though the right-hand dancer is painted in a style related to synthetic Cubism, the manner in which the other two figures are executed - and indeed the theme of dancing figures - is developed out of Picasso's neo-classical style and in particular from his work in connection with the Russian ballet. His association with the ballet dates from 1917 when he accompanied Jean Cocteau to Rome to design the settings for the ballet Parade for Diaghilev's company. The success of Parade, for which Picasso designed the curtain, scenery and costumes, led to his employment for further ballets, including Le Tricorne (to music by Manuel de Falla) in 1920, Pulcinella (music by Stravinsky) in 1920, Cuadro Flamenco (music again by de Falla) in 1921 and Le Train Bleu (music by Milhaud) in 1924; and in 1924 he also designed the scenery and costumes for a ballet, Mercure, put on by the rival company run by Count Etienne de Beaumont. During the seven years 1917 to 1924 immediately preceding the painting of 'The Three Dancers' Picasso therefore had very close associations with the ballet, which were heightened through his marriage in 1918 to Olga Koklova, a dancer in Diaghilev's company. He mixed on intimate terms with the dancers, choreographers and other members of the company, and was frequently present at rehearsals. During this period he made a number of drawings, as well as a few paintings, of ballet dancers, most of which show them at rehearsal, practising their movements, exercising at the barre or simply resting during the pauses.

Picasso spent part of the spring of 1925 at Monte Carlo with the Diaghilev company. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes arrived in Monte Carlo at the beginning of January 1925 and remained there until the end of April when they went on to Barcelona. During part of this time they were giving performances; during the remainder they were resting and rehearsing. There are several photographs of Picasso and Mme Picasso taken at this time, usually with members of the company. On the other hand, the various memoirs published by those associated with the Russian ballet contain only a few passing references to this visit by Picasso, which suggests that it was rather brief. There are a number of drawings of dancers rehearsing or resting dated 1925, including several dated 12 or 13 April 1925. In addition, there is a portrait drawing of Enrico Cecchetti, the famous ballet master, which is inscribed 'Monte Carlo 29 April 1925'. All this suggests that Picasso probably only spent the last two or three weeks of April at Monte Carlo. This would have been for the final part of the Diaghilev season there, including the first performance of the ballet Zéphire et Flore, with décor by Braque, on 28 April.

Therefore the question arises: was 'The Three Dancers' painted at Monte Carlo or, at any rate, begun there? It is certain that it must have been finished by July 1925, because it was reproduced in the issue of the revue La Révolution Surréaliste dated the 15th of that month. Furthermore Picasso told Sir Roland Penrose in January 1965, just before the picture was dispatched to London, that 'While I was painting this picture an old friend of mine, Ramon Pichot, died and I have always felt that it should be called "The Death of Pichot" rather than "The Three Dancers". The tall black figure behind the dancer on the right is the presence of Pichot'. Ramon Pichot died in Paris on 1 March 1925; Picasso's remarks seem to make it quite clear that the picture had been begun by that date and that it underwent some radical changes afterwards. If Picasso began 'The Three Dancers' in Paris, before going to Monte Carlo - as seems very likely - it is highly improbable that he would have taken such a large canvas with him to the South of France to work on, though there is no reason why he should not have done some further painting on it in Paris when he got back. All he could tell Sir Roland Penrose was that this picture had nothing to do with his visit to Monte Carlo and that he was not certain but he thought that it was painted in Paris after his return.

X-ray photographs show that the picture was begun in a much more conventional way as a fairly straightforward representation of three dancers rehearsing. All three figures seem to have had very similar rounded, rather melon-shaped heads and more realistic legs and feet [X-ray photograph reproduced p.598: not reproduced here]. Then at some point, presumably after Pichot's death, it underwent a number of radical changes and took on various deeper meanings. The final picture has an hieratic grandeur and a strangeness which are entirely foreign to all his previous renderings of the dance. Not only did the stylisation become much more arbitrary, but Picasso clearly set out to make each of the figures as different from one another as possible. Examination of the paint surface shows that the areas with the greatest distortion have been very heavily reworked, especially the whole left-hand side from the top of the window right down to the bottom of the skirt. The thickness of the paint and its fretted surface are evidence of the struggle that went into the painting of this area and of the invention and rejection of successive solutions. Nowhere is the paint more heavily loaded and encrusted than in the left-hand part of the sky, where the head of the outer dancer was originally situated. A num ber of pentimenti and cracks in the paint allow one to see that the blue of the sky originally continued under part of what is now the black profile on the right and that the brown head was somewhat larger; the black head, representing the presence of Pichot, was painted on top and reduced the brown head to its present size.

It therefore becomes essential to know who Pichot was and what his importance could have been for this picture. Ramon Pichot was a Spanish painter born in Barcelona in 1872, who died in Paris on 1 March 1925. Picasso met him in Barcelona in the second half of the 1890s when they were both members of the group of advanced artists who used to foregather regularly at the brasserie Els Quatre Gats. When in 1897 Picasso made a series of caricatures of the regular patrons to hang on the walls there, Pichot was one of those he depicted. Later, in 1900, Picasso is said to have moved into a studio in Barcelona which was rented by several of his friends, including Pichot, and to have filled it to such an extent with his painting materials and to have spent so much of his time there that the others came to accept it as his own - even though he had not himself made any contribution to the rent. Pichot was one of the Spanish artists who, like Picasso, moved to Paris around the turn of the century; he exhibited regularly at the Salon des Indépendants from 1902. Picasso, during his first years in Paris, associated mainly with the colony of Spanish artists who had established themselves there, many of whom were already friends of his from his days in Barcelona. Their headquarters was for a while a small Bohemian cabaret in the Place Ravignan, called the Zut, where they used to meet night after night in a small room exclusively set aside for their use; in addition to Picasso, the band included Manolo, Soto, Sabartés, Durio, and later Pichot and his wife Germaine. The room was in appalling condition, damp and filthy; eventually the friends persuaded the proprietor to whitewash the walls and Picasso and Pichot decorated them with paintings - Picasso painting a 'Temptation of St Anthony' and Pichot contenting himself with a view of the Eiffel Tower with Santos-Dumont's dirigible flying above it. This apparently took place late in 1901. When Picasso returned to Spain for the third time in 1905 it was the Pichots who stored his pictures for him. In 1908 Ramon and Germaine Pichot were among the guests at the famous 'banquet' which Picasso gave in honour of the Douanier Rousseau. In 1910 Picasso, together with his mistress Fernande Olivier and André Derain, spent the summer at Cadaqués at the same time as the Pichots. The intimate friendship between Picasso and the Pichots lasted until 1912 when it seems to have come to an end as the result of a quarrel over Fernande Olivier, whom Picasso had left shortly before for her friend Eva-Marcelle Humbert. Picasso decided to take Eva to Céret near Perpignan for the summer months, in spite of the fact that he had spent the previous summer there in the company of Fernande; and by an unfortunate mischance Fernande was there as well, staying with the Pichots. Tactless references by the Pichots to his rupture with the girl they admired led to some stormy scenes, which were followed by Picasso's abrupt departure for Avignon.

As a painter, Pichot never attained a great deal of success. He was a pupil of Casas and Rusi¤ol, the two artists mainly responsible for introducing Impressionism to Catalonia, and himself worked in a decorative late Impressionist style. In addition to painting figures, interiors and landscapes, he also practised as an engraver and illustrator. His colourful and picturesque works - scenes such as Mediterranean street markets - are extremely unlikely to have had any bearing on 'The Three Dancers'.

However Ramon Pichot is not the only one of Picasso's friends of relevance to this painting, and there is a further clue which helps to make the position much clearer and which throws an altogether new light on this work. It concerns not Pichot himself but his wife Germaine. In her book on Picasso written in collaboration with Carlton Lake (Life with Picasso, London 1965, p.75), Françoise Gilot has described how, shortly after she went to live with Picasso in 1944, he took her on a special visit to Germaine Pichot, who was then toothless and sick, lying in bed. After talking quietly with the old woman for a few minutes, Picasso laid some money on her table and they went out again. Picasso explained to Françoise Gilot that when Germaine was young, 'she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide. She was a young laundress when I first came to Paris. The first people we looked up, this friend of mine and I, were this woman and friends of hers with whom she was living. We had been given their names by friends in Spain, and they used to have us to eat with them from time to time.'

This is connected not with Ramon Pichot's own death but with an incident which took place as long before as 1901, namely the tragic suicide of the young Catalan painter Carlos Casagemas. Casagemas, who was one of Picasso's closest friends from Barcelona, accompanied him on his first visit to Paris in 1900. There he met Germaine, in the circumstances just described, and became obsessed with her. Instead of painting, he spent his time drinking, and thought only of suicide. (He was apparently of a depressive disposition and, it is said, had discovered that he was impotent). Picasso tried to shake him out of this depression by taking him to Malaga but Casagemas' condition did not improve; and when Picasso was eventually obliged to depart, Casagemas returned to Paris and there a few days later, on 17 February 1901, he took his own life. He first fired a revolver at Germaine but missed, then shot himself in the head.

Picasso painted several pictures in this year, 1901, commemorating the death of Casagemas. In one of these, known as 'The Mourners', mourning figures are grouped around a bier on which the dead painter is lying. In a second, larger picture, known as 'Evocation' or 'The Burial of Casagemas', there is a similar group of figures in the lower half, with various other figures overhead (an allegorical composition somewhat in the manner of El Greco). Then in 1903-4 Picasso introduced the nude figures of Casagemas and Germaine embracing into his Blue Period masterpiece 'La Vie', which is evidently some sort of allegory about the meaning of life. (On Casagemas' relationship with Picasso and the early paintings inspired by his suicide, see the article by Theodore Reff, 'Themes of Love and Death in Picasso's Early Work' in Kahnweiler, Reff and others, op. cit.).

The fact that this incident made a great impression on Picasso at the time and that it was still sufficiently vivid in his mind forty-three years later for him to want to drive home its lesson to Françoise Gilot so that she might, in his words, 'learn about life', makes it more than likely that it also had some bearing on this picture. Françoise Gilot interpreted his motives in taking her to see Germaine as like showing someone a skull to encourage him to meditate on the vanity of human existence. It is known what Germaine looked like when she was young: Picasso confirmed that she is the girl in his picture 'At the Lapin Agile' of 1905, in which he himself appears as a harlequin. If one compares this portrait, which is in profile, with the mysterious profile on the left of 'The Three Dancers', there are various similarities, such as the small, gently curving nose and the pouting lips, though the treatment in the later picture is much more stylised and the resemblance may be merely coincidental. But in any case it seems highly probable that the left-hand figure in 'The Three Dancers', with her aggressive sexuality and her double head, one aspect gentle and the other demonic, was associated in his own mind with Germaine - a female presence on the left to counterbalance that of her husband on the right.

The possibility therefore arises that the figure in the centre is intended to symbolise Casagemas and in fact, despite its caricature-like stylisation, the head has a certain resemblance to him in its suggestion of dark rings around the eyes and a slightly receding chin. Moreover the figure's pallor and frailty suggest vulnerability and suffering, perhaps even death. As regards its attitude, Lawrence Gowing has written in The Tate Gallery Report 1964-65, p.10: 'Its right hand lies against the horizontal window frame, neither in front of it nor behind, but, by some property of the image rather than of actuality, as if attached. Behind the elongated figure the upright strip of sky between the windows darkens to a deeper, graver blue. It takes on a material existence in its own right, and the railings against it are set closer together, three times as close as the rest; they give it a solid strength like the grain of timber. The whole vertical and horizontal shape of the window, the central structure of the picture, make a great cross. The left arm is raised, as if by magnetism, by the shadowy, haunted presence on the right. The figure is stretched, as if suspended, no longer chiefly dancer or woman, but only a painful vestige of flesh. "The Three Dancers" is like a Crucifixion.' That this was definitely intended by the artist is borne out by the fact that the dark blue behind the figure was painted over the same pale sky-blue that one sees on either side, and also that several pentimenti around the upper parts of the figure (and the corresponding area of the X-ray photograph) show that the position of the arms was originally less sagging and more dynamic. Even the black bars formed by the fingers or the gaps between them are like nails.

What is suggested therefore is that 'The Three Dancers' was begun as a fairly straightforward composition of three dancers rehearsing and that, after the death of Pichot, which reminded Picasso of the tragedy which had occurred many years before, it took on various deeper meanings. It became a paradigm of the relationship between man and woman, a sort of Dance of Life that is also a Dance of Death, with Ramon Pichot on the right, Germaine on the left and Casagemas as it were crucified between them.

The notes made by Sir Roland Penrose about this picture after conversations with Picasso at Mougins on 29-31 January 1965 were first published in The Tate Gallery Report 1964-65, pp.49-50, but are of such interest as to warrant reprinting here in full:

Picasso: 'While I was painting this picture an old friend of mine, Ramon Pichot, died and I have always felt that it should be called "The Death of Pichot" rather than "The Three Dancers". The tall black figure behind the dancer on the right is the presence of Pichot'.

I said I had been looking for other pictures of the same period that had some affinity and had found that the only one that resembled it at all was the 'Crucifixion' of 1930.

Picasso: 'That's possible, but in reality there are no others, not even drawings, that are like it. The "Crucifixion" is the only one and it's very different'.

Mme Picasso thought she had seen some drawings connected with it but he denied this.

I asked him if it was connected with his visit to Monte Carlo the same year when he had done so many drawings of the ballet.

Picasso: 'No, that has nothing to do with it'.

He was not certain but it seems likely that it was painted in Paris after his return from Monte Carlo.

I asked how it was he had not sold it before.

Picasso answered with a smile: 'Because I did not want to. I have been asked a hundred times to sell it by Americans, by Kahnweiler and many others but I have always refused. And what's more this is the first time I have sold a picture direct to a Museum'.

I said: 'One of the things that makes "The Three Dancers" so important to me is that one sees in it the first traces of "Guernica"'.

Picasso, looking at me in surprise: 'Perhaps, but of the two I much prefer "The Three Dancers". It's more a real painting - a painting in itself without any outside considerations.'

I said the central window with blue sky or sea beyond and the red patch which suggests a mountainous coastline such as the Esterel reminded me of the still life compositions of St Raphael of 1919. Picasso reminded me that there were several others of the same kind painted in Paris.

I examined closely the cracks in the paint on the left side, specially round the head of the dancer. Noticing my interest Picasso said: 'The paint is solid enough and will not flake off. Some people might want to touch them out but I think they add to the painting. On the face you see how they reveal the eye that was painted underneath'. I said I thought it much better to leave them as they are and he agreed emphatically. We agreed that the painting was in splendid condition, it was only his signature that was lacking. He said he would sign it but had not yet decided just where and how it should be done but historically it was necessary it should be signed.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.598-605, reproduced p.598.

Film and audio

You might like

In the shop