Born Jose Victoriano González on March 23, 1887, Juan Gris oddly chose the Spanish word for grey as his artistic pseudonym. Gris’ life was anything but grey and dull, spent amidst the excitement of early twentieth century Paris in the company of fellow Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Gris even painted Picasso’s portrait (above, from 1912) to pay tribute to the man who helped him become a serious painter. In many ways, Gris is a poor man’s Picasso, at least of the Cubist period, coming from Spain to Paris to paint many of the same subjects in the same style as Picasso. No less an authority than Gertrude Stein believed that Gris "was the one person that Picasso would have willingly wiped off the map." Whether Picasso wanted Gris gone out of anger over being copied or out of jealousy isn’t clear.
Like Picasso and many other artists of the period, Gris loved the Commedia dell'Arte, especially the figure of the Harlequin. Harlequin with Guitar (above, from 1919) could easily make Picasso’s Three Musicians a quartet. Gris’ work actually predates Picasso’s famous work by two years. Both works exemplify the style of Synthetic Cubist that replaced the brown studies of early Cubism with bold, energetic color. In the 1920s, Gris took that bold color and designed set designs for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Before becoming a painter, Gris made a living, however meagerly, selling humorous illustrations to newspapers and magazines. That wit comes through in his harlequin as well, which becomes more of an excuse for the play of color and form than a real body at work.
When you look at a painting such as Gris’ Violin and Playing Cards (above, from 1913), it’s hard to distinguish what is really going on—the case in many cubist paintings, which are often more like intellectual puzzles to be solved. Thanks to the different wood grains, you can distinguish the violin from the table. The playing cards on the table and the wallpaper are easy enough, too. When you get to the other shapes surrounding the violin in black, green, and purple, it takes some imagination to picture them as the shadows of the violin. Not only does Gris separate the instrument from its shadow, but he dissects the shadow itself into the secondary colors reflected in it. Sadly, Gris died before turning forty, leaving his wife and son as well as a world of artistic possibilities behind. The history of Cubism duly notes the contributions of Picasso and Braque, but in that colorful tale we should find a little room for a touch of grey, er, Gris.