In a bleak setting, at an ocean's edge, a family grouping of three poor people, barefoot, huddled and shivering, are lost in contemplation. The figures' proportions are elongated. Imposing in their size, they take up the entire canvas. Rendered entirely in shades of blue, all other details are eliminated from the composition adding to the mood of blue empty coldness of sand, sky, and sea.


Critics have attributed Picasso's use of blue in his paintings (1904-1906) to his poverty, to his habit of working at night by the light of a petrol-lamp, or to a more emotional and spiritual meaning betraying his sympathy for the human condition. "Bright and vivid shades would be quite inappropriate to the bloodless bodies and dark, frightened faces of human beings wilting beneath a doom they cannot understand. Cold blues...[are] more in keeping with the world of suffering and disinherited people." (Elgar, Frank. Study of the Artist's Work. In Picasso. New York: Tudor, 1972, p. 22) See also The Old Guitarist (The Blind Guitarist) (annotated this database).

The title is provocative. Is the tragedy an illness or death, or is it that in their grief, locked in their own loneliness, the family members are unavailable to one another? This image is a marvelous case study for studying and teaching about bereavement. For example, is the child reaching out to console, or looking for support? What is he thinking? Common to children are at least three concerns: Did I cause it? Will I die? Who will take care of me?

For analysis of this painting in an HIV/AIDS context, see Bertman, S. "Children and Death: Insights, Hindsights, and Illuminations." In: Children and Death, eds. D. Papadatou & C. Papadatos. (New York: Hemisphere)1991, pp. 311-329. Pages 320-323 are devoted to discussion of this picture.


Picasso's signature in the lower right corner of the painting, the year 1903 in the upper right.

Primary Source

Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.