Exploring most of it. Pablo Picasso’s Family of

Exploring the
functions of figures in three works of ‘landscape’ art by three different

This essay
will look at three different landscapes to get a wider scope of the importance
of figures and their meanings within a painting. I have looked at three
different artists, so that I can see how figures are important from different
perspectives, rather than choosing one style/movement where figures may hold
virtually the same meaning to several artists.

I have chosen
Salvador Dali’s Equestrian portrait as my first figure as I feel from looking
at the image, that the figure has had the biggest visual impact on the
landscape, obscuring most of it. Pablo Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques is a
close second, as the figures are prominent within the landscape but exist
within the landscape not outside of it. I have chosen to explore Théodore
Rousseau’s ‘Oaks at Apremont’ last as there is only one visible figure, a
Shepard tending his animals. I initially discounted this painting as it had
only one small, main figure, however, the figure may have been placed there for
a reason and during my research into the image, I am curious to see if the
figure was intentionally added and has a deeper meaning or whether the figure
was placed there for the artists aesthetic pleasure.


Fig.1 – ‘Equestrian
portrait of Carmen Bordiu-Franco’ 1974,
Salvador Dali

Portrait of Carmen Bordiu-Franco (C.1974)

Salvador Dali
(Spanish, 1904 – 1989)

Oil on Canvas


The figure of
Carmen Bordiu- Franco was created as a wedding present for the marriage of
Maria del Carmen Martinez Bordiu y Franco to Alfonso de Bourbon-Dampierre
Carol 131. Bordiu was the granddaughter of Francisco Franco, the Prime
Minister of Spain at the time and she is featured on the silhouette of a horse.
Dali explained during an interview with Jesus Ramos that the painting (fig.1)
had an underlying political message and that it was a symbol for him, that
Franco was a steady force, guiding the future of Spain history Bosquet 72. Dali
says of the painting, “in the constant changing clouds of diplomacy the horse
of history is cut out, allowing us to see the luminous horizon line and the
immutable sky of the serene Spain of the Caudillo Franco” Secrest 72.

The elements
that appear within the horse are in focus, whereas Carmen and the image outside
of the horse are seemingly smudged, connoting chaos and this is furthered by
the pathetic fallacy surrounding the painting. The weather within the horse is
calm, sunny and bright (signifying the positive influence of Franco within the
kingdom) whereas the weather outside the horse, is dark and brooding as if a
storm is brewing outside of the horse.

Two pieces of
Spanish iconography are featured within the calm of the horse. The Escorial, (which
historically is the home of the King of Spain) and a small replication of ‘The
Surrender of Breda’ by Diego Velasquez Epstein 224. James Morris called this
specific Velasquez’s work “one of the most Spanish of all pictures” Morris
29. These images both represent Spain in the painting (fig.1) and the safety
of the images within the horse could depict the safety of Spain in Franco’s

Dali depicts
Bordiu as an adolescent in this painting “because I see her like that, very
childlike … I painted her barefoot precisely because I see her as childlike
and I didn’t want to give it an equestrian idea in the ‘sportive’ sense but
just symbolic” Taylor 144. Carmen’s role in the painting (fig.1) is vital as
she is a well-known figure in Spanish society at the time and an outcome of
Franco himself. Dali has made her a symbol of what a woman should be like under
Franco’s rule.

However, Dali
may have intended for Carmen to be the posterchild her grandfather’s rule but
from my own perspective, he has created a powerful documentation of women and
their roles in Francoist Spain. Carmen’s figure shows the lowered status of
women at the time. By portraying Carmen as an adolescent, Dali captured the
highly restrictive and domestic role women played within Franco’s oppressive
dictatorship. At the time women were not allowed to vote and could only work or
apply for passports with their husband’s permission.

The other
possibility is that as the painting (fig.1) was commissioned by Franco’s inner
circle, Dali painted a scene that would be read as support of the dictator and
his regime, yet was satirical to Dali, and implies that there whilst he may
support Franco, he is prepared to openly critique him and his policies. If the
piece is irreverent, without Carmen to represent the position of women at the
time, the piece would read entirely as a support of Franco, the landscape and
Vasquez’s work would seem a positive representation of Spain and reinforce the
idea of Dali believing that Franco’s rule is the right path for the country.

In summary,
the landscape within this work (fig.1) depicts scenes of Spanish origin. The
addition of Carmen symbolises Dali’s belief that Franco’s dictatorship and the
continuance of the rule of the Franco family is the true and correct path for
Spain, and that anything outside of that would be chaotic. 


Fig. 2 – La Famille
de Saltimbanques, 1905, Pablo Picasso


Les Famille
de Saltimbanques (C.1905)         

Pablo Picasso
(Spanish, 1881-1973)

Oil on canvas,
212.8 cm × 229.6 cm

Chester Dale
Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (USA)

 La Famille de Saltimbanques (or The Family of
Entertainers in English) is a 1905 painting by Pablo Picasso. The work (fig.2) features
six Saltimbanques, (a kind of travelling circus performer), in a barren and
desolate landscape. The background was originally a busy racecourse until
Picasso created a different background for this landscape, which is based
around the environment of his birthplace in Malaga, Andalucía, Spain. Alley
591. The background influenced the meaning of the painting, transporting the
Saltimbanques from a lively, exciting area into an arid, grey location.

travelling circus and Saltimbanques was a subject Picasso shared with his new
friend, Guillaume Apollinaire McCully. To both the poet and the painter these
wandering performers became an allegorical reference to Picasso’s position in
modern society as well as the position of contemporary artists. Picasso
specifically highlighted that that idea in Family of Saltimbanques, where he
assumes the role of Harlequin who is only seen from behind, as if forgotten,
and Apollinaire is the strongman, central to the painting (fig.2) Salmon 164.

The circus
troupe have been arranged to look as if they about to depart soon, for a new
destination, this is shown both literally in the painting (fig.2) and
metaphorically through the symbology of the figures. Picasso is the drab suited
Harlequin Salmon 164, holding the hand of little girl. This is possibly a
representation of his younger sister, Conchita, whose death at the age of seven
affected Picasso deeply McCully. He promised to sacrifice his passion for
painting and declared that he would never paint again if she survived her
illness. Her death created his first obsessive connection between art, life and
death in his work McCully. He would continue this obsession throughout his
lifetime. The pot-bellied jester is the leader of the group and supposedly
meant to represent the Symbolist Apollinaire. The older acrobat in the background
is supposedly the poet Andre Salmon McCully. Both Apollinaire and Salmon were
good friends of Picasso’s. Picasso’s lover of the time, Fernande, is probably
the woman strangely distancing herself from the group, perhaps a symbolisation
of her actions during Picasso’s more melancholy ‘Blue Period’ McCully. In the
painting (fig.2) the muted colours create the haunting, empty mood of this
deserted and basic landscape. The arrangement of the figures in the landscape
is like that of a pastoral scene, except the landscape has been emptied of a
life. The figures themselves are drastically separated from the traditional
‘big-top’ setting, connoting the isolation and sadness of their environment.

The family of
Saltimbanques is symbolic in many different ways, but the overarching theme is
the transition to another phase and the revisiting of past events or people
before the start of the new phase. Without the family of circus entertainers,
the landscape (fig.2) would go from bleak and barren to empty and boring.
However, without the muted background, we might not read the expressions of the
Saltimbanques as closely and understand their meaning. I think that this
symbolises that even though Picasso has lived through significantly hard times
and tragedies, he would not be the same without them. The message of Picasso’s
painting is just as symbolic as Dali’s but instead of representing his
political ideology or painting to appease a dictator, Picasso has created this
to symbolise his own demons and his transition into another state whether
physically or most likely, mentally.  Both
Dali and Picasso use the background of the paintings to solidify the meaning in
each painting. Picasso uses images based on places in his hometown to drive
home the feeling of isolation, whereas Dali uses his backgrounds to create a
sense of unity.













Fig.3 Oaks at
Apremont, Théodore Rousseau, 1850-52

Oaks at
Apremont (C.1850-52)

Rousseau (French 1812 – 1867)

Oil on
Canvas, 99.5 x 63 cm

The Louvre,

Oaks at Apremont
(or ‘les chênes d’apremont’ in French) helped Rousseau to become regarded as
one of the “great landscape artists of the nineteenth-century” in the eyes of
Katerin Huguenaud Huguenaud.  Under a
peppered sky, the flourishing and stoic oaks stand tall in the summer
landscape, offering shade to the shepherd and his flock of animals. The human
presence in this scene is minimal, consisting of only one figure, a Shepard and
his flock of animals.

Huguenaud states that “the Romantic construction of this landscape is replaced
by a naturalism that does not seek to seduce”. I think by adding only the
singular small figure, the shepherd complies with this idea of naturalism. The
job of a Shepard is typically one of solitude and by depicting this accurately,
Rousseau has maintained the sense of reality.

preferred to “evoke the landscape’s wild, untamed side, often through vivid
lighting effects and looser brushwork” Huguenaud. He has seemingly achieved
this in the painting, but without the inclusion of the Shepard, the painting is
simply a landscape. However, the inclusion of the Shepard transforms the
painting into a pastoral or genre painting, evoking a sense of life within the
scene. Rousseau also emphasized, “the landscape as a subject, without imposing
mythological or historical narratives onto it, offering a realistic depiction
of the unrelenting midday sun, and of the way in which the light falls”

Greg M.
Thomas stresses two features in Rousseau’s paintings: their formal construction
and their message Thomas 203. Thomas has written that “Rousseau borrowed his
fixation on the middle distance from Dutch landscape artists, but he used it to
unusual advantage” Thomas 203. He goes on to state that “Canvases, divided
into three planes, pulls the eye toward the middle ground, which is
encompassed within an ellipsoid construction”. We can see this in action with
the shadows of the oaks creating an oval shape in the centre of the painting.

continues “The foreground is typically shrouded in darkness, sometimes framed
by trees, while the middle distance is bathed in light, revealing a forest
clearing, a plain, a meadow with cattle grazing, a river or a pond”. The
foreground isn’t darkened in this particular painting, but is framed by the
impress stature of the oak trees and the light cutting through the shadows,
creating a clear path through the fields, towards the river.

Thomas argues

The viewer’s eye is drawn toward a smaller area within the
ellipse, represented by a person, animal, or clump of trees, that creates what
he calls a central “reflection point.” The effect of the oval motif
was to grant the landscape greater independence than the stage like vistas
usually offered the viewer, which suggested that the landscape was both a
spectacle made for him and one he built through his gaze. Since an ellipsoid
middle ground does not alter with every movement of the head, it does not seem
to depend on the viewer for its existence. This spatial organization both
attracted the viewer and alienated him, and thus embodied perfectly Rousseau’s
ambivalence toward man’s relationship to nature.

Thomas 203

Without the
Shepard and his placement within the painting, the painting would become a
simple landscape that would exist for the viewer’s pleasure and would not
alienate the viewer like Rousseau had hoped. ‘Oaks at Apremont’ is very
different to the two other paintings as the figure doesn’t initially seem
important. According to Thomas, the Shepard is in fact one of the most essential
elements as it helps with the construction of the ‘reflection point’. However,
he is useful in terms of the construction of the painting, but unlike the first
two paintings (fis.1&2) I have looked at, carries no symbolical reference.

Having chosen
three paintings from assorted styles/movements. I expected to find little
comparisons within the three paintings. The similarities between Picasso’s ‘La
Famille de Saltimbanques’ and Dali’s ‘Equestrian Portrait of Carmen
Bordiu-Franco’ were strong in terms of symbolism and in the fact that both
artists are Spanish and have used images of their hometown or home country.
However, that is where the similarities between them ended, Dali had created a
symbolic piece to represent someone else’s life, whereas Picasso had created a
painting to create express his emotions and a segment of his life. Rousseau’s
‘Oaks’ has little link to any other painting I have looked at in this essay, apart
from the fact that it depicts a landscape. Even the landscape itself is vastly
different, containing luscious greenery as opposed to the sandy dunes featured
in both figure one and two.