Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe”

Boy with a pipe - by Pablo Picasso

Boy with a Pipe (French: Garçon à la Pipe) is an oil on canvas painting by Pablo Picasso. It was painted in 1905 when Picasso was 24 years old. The painting depicts a Parisian adolescent boy who holds a pipe in his left hand the wrong way round.

In 1905, Picasso was still a struggling artist and had settled in Montmartre in Paris. He was living in poverty in a dilapidated artist building.

The boy depicted in this painting was known as “P’tit Louis”, or “Little Louis”. He was described by Picasso as, “one of the “local types, actors, ladies, gentlemen, delinquents” who frequented the studios in the Bateau-Lavoir*. The harsh life of a street boy resulted in the subject dying at a young age.

Preliminary studies for this painting show the boy in a variety of different poses, including standing, sitting, leaning against a wall, lighting a pipe or holding it in his hands. Picasso eventually chose to depict his model in the seated position shown in the finished painting, which he painstakingly worked on in a preparatory study.

The french poet, art critic and writer André Salmon, a friend of Picasso, described how the painter had transformed what was originally a study from life to the current artwork in a sudden flash of inspiration: “One night, Picasso abandoned the company of his friends and their intellectual chit-chat. He returned to his studio, took the canvas he had abandoned a month before and crowned the figure of the little apprentice lad with roses. He had made this work a masterpiece thanks to a sublime whim.” Picasso described the boy as an “evil angel”.

The peculiar position of the pipe in the boy’s hand has been the subject of interpretation. As the pipe was commonly used as a symbol of intellectual reflection in nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting, the pipe’s position gains particular significance. The pipe appears as though being held from outside the painting, rather than from inside, thus suggesting a fusion of realities, where the boy is a reflection of Picasso himself.

The painting is listed as one of the most expensive paintings, after being sold at Sotheby’s auction for $104 million on 5 May 2004. It is currently the fifth highest selling painting by Picasso.


* The Bateau-Lavoir (“Washhouse Boat”) is the nickname of a building in the Montmartre district of the 18th arrondissement of Paris that is famous in art history as the residence and meeting place for a group of outstanding early 20th-century artists such as Pablo Picasso, men of letters, theatre people, and art dealers.