"Not a single day without painting."
Pablo Picasso was inspired to create art from his earliest childhood and continued to nurture and realize that inspiration until his death at the age of ninety-three. Although he is best known for his paintings and drawings, he also produced sculpture, ceramic pieces, and book illustrations and designed costumes and scenery for the theater and ballet. Picasso's style went through a series of transformations during his long career, resulting in what art historians have come to call a variety of "periods." Most all of these were notable for the challenge they posed to traditional artistic boundaries. Picasso is considered by many to be the most influential artist of the twentieth century.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain. Picasso's natural artistic abilities were encouraged by his father, Jose Ruiz, a painter and art teacher. Also an influence on his art, Picasso's mother, Maria Picasso, loomed as a great presence in the young artist's emotional development as well. From about the age of twenty, Picasso used only the family name of his mother, a common custom in Spain. He revealed remarkable drawing skills early on and worked often in his father's studio. Though Picasso was passionate about literature and history, he disliked formal schooling and avoided it. Nonetheless, in 1896, when he was fourteen, he required just one day to complete the entrance examination of the Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona, Spain. The rules of the academy allowed one month for completion of the test.
Influenced by Spanish heritage
Picasso's work was influenced significantly by his Spanish heritage. He studied the Spanish master painters Diego Velázquez and El Greco and remained current on social and political issues in Spain throughout his life. But perhaps the most apparent clue to the artist's powerful bond to his homeland is the appearance of Spanish cultural symbols, such as bulls and bullfighting, in much of his work.
After attending several art schools, Picasso left Spain for France in 1900. He was nineteen years old. In Paris he became close to several artists who, like him, were destined to change the face of contemporary art. Among them were Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger. He also came under the influence of many of the great artists of the late nineteenth century, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin. Some of Picasso's paintings from this early period look very much like the art of these painters, though they clearly demonstrate a distinctive style that was quickly associated with the younger artist, one that amply displayed both his talent and character.
Picasso's life in Paris was difficult, and his paintings of that era reflect this. His work from the years 1901 to 1904 are grouped into what is called his "Blue Period." The Blue Period produced paintings notable for creating a feeling of sadness in the viewer. These canvases displayed a limited range of hues and were generally bathed in blues and some greens. Many are portraits, the subjects therein thin, ghostly, and seemingly despondent.
From blue to rose
The work of the following three years, roughly 1904 to 1907, demonstrates another style shift, to what has been dubbed the "Rose Period." Many of the paintings from these years portray acrobats and circus performers. The change from dark, shadowy blues to warmer, brighter colors reflects an improvement in Picasso's fortunes; he was becoming more successful financially and was supported creatively by a stimulating circle of artistic and literary acquaintances. The friendship and patronage of writer Gertrude Stein—a portrait of whom would become one of the young painter's most famous—and her brother Leo were important factors in Picasso's growing renown.
Around 1906 Picasso's style underwent yet another metamorphosis; this time his unbridled inventiveness and innovation would make him the leader of a new school that was to change the world of art. Several elements were important to this development: first, Picasso became interested in the formal and technical aspects of drawing—how a subject is given structure on a flat page. He also was greatly moved by the popularity of Paul Cézanne, particularly by that painter's work of 1906 and 1907. At the same time, Matisse and others had begun studying African sculpture and ceremonial masks. These appealed to Picasso because the pieces were so different from those comprising traditional European art. Working with his friend Georges Braque, Picasso introduced a method of breaking down a subject into geometric shapes. This revolutionary approach to form became known as cubism.
Shocks world with cubism
One of Picasso's earliest and most famous cubist paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, depicts a group of five women—but in an arresting new way, one unlike any before seen in Western art. The women's bodies and faces are represented as multiple shapes. Even more astounding, Picasso had painted them from several points of view, all appearing at once spread out across the space of the canvas; somehow he had learned to present the human form in profile, three-quarters view, and full face simultaneously. As his cubist ideas flowered, Picasso used vivid designs and colors to help viewers "decipher" the objects he had "cubed." These radical steps sent a shock wave throughout the art world. Soon other artists, such as Gris, Leger, and Diego Rivera began to experiment with the new style in order to express themselves in a manner that the time-honored methods could not afford them.
Picasso continued to explore cubism and other schools of painting for many years, including surrealism, a new classicism, and symbolism. He also developed the art of collage, using a variety of materials—wood, paper, cloth, yarn—for three-dimensional works. Moreover, he made constructions of cardboard and metal. As a result of this unprecedented diversity, Picasso came to be regarded as the undisputed leader among the world's artists, his technical skills and creative abilities almost universally revered.
Creates designs for the theater
During World War I, Serge Diaghilev, an acclaimed Russian art critic and impresario, asked Picasso to create stage designs for his ballet troupe. The 1920s saw the artist mount several other theatrical designs. In many paintings of this period he returned to a "classical" style in which he presented the human form as massive sculpture, as if it were carved from marble. Most likely he was influenced by the many sculptures he saw during the time he spent in Italy during the war. This new style was a great contrast to the flatness of his cubist art. In the late 1920s Picasso worked with sculptor Julio Gonzales making wire sculptures.
Lashes out at war with Guernica
In 1937 Picasso painted what is perhaps his most famous work. During the Spanish Civil War, a small town named Guernica was destroyed by bombardment, with many people killed and injured. Picasso used his art to express his anger and grief: he painted the giant Guernica. He used somber colors, cubist forms, and a deep reserve of emotion to express the horror of the war. The painting, which features screaming people, mutilated corpses, flames, and injured animals, has endured as a model of antiwar sentiment.
Picasso was known for his forceful personality and colorful love life almost as much as for his work. He was also admired for letting his prodigious talents liberate his imagination; he was bound by few barriers—personal or artistic. Once he even fashioned a bull's head out of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Picasso's energy was also boundless, enabling him to work on several projects at once. "Painting is my hobby," he once said. "When I'm finished painting I paint again for relaxation."
Unlike some artists, Picasso was very shrewd in financial matters, never settling for less than he felt his work deserved. During his lifetime his work commanded the highest prices ever earned by an artist. Picasso was also a great collector; his several homes were crammed full of all sorts of objects he either bought or found—rocks, birdcages, African drums, pottery, posters, hats. He reportedly never threw anything away and allowed no one to move his things.
Entire life marked by creativity and experimentation
Even in old age, Picasso never stopped experimenting. In the 1960s, when he was in his eighties, he was commissioned by the city of Chicago to create a monument for the Civic Center Plaza. He produced a metal sculpture over six stories high that resembled some of his cubist figures. It was larger than anything he'd made before. Picasso died on April 8, 1973, in Mougins, France.
Picasso's genius is beyond debate. He has influenced legions of artists—sculptors, architects, writers, filmmakers, poets, and musicians, as well as painters. His numerous works can be seen in museums around the world, including the Picasso Museum in Paris, where visitors can view the work that Picasso did not share with the world during his long and fruitful life.
- 1903: The Old Guitarist
- 1904: The Frugal Repast
- 1905: Les Saltimbanques
- 1905: Boy Leading a Horse
- 1906: Gertrude Stein
- 1906: The Jester (sculpture)
- 1907: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
- 1910: Daniel Henry Kahnweiler
- 1921: Three Musicians
- 1921: Seated Nude
- 1922: Mother and Child
- 1937: Dora Maar
- 1937: Guernica
- 1964: Chicago Monument sculpture
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- Lyttle, Richard B., Pablo Picasso: The Man and the Image, Atheneum, 1989.
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- Muhlberger, Richard, What Makes a Picasso a Picasso?, Viking, 1994.
- Rollyson, Carl, Pablo Picasso, Rourke, 1993.
- Selfridge, John W., Pablo Picasso, Chelsea House, 1994.
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- Venezia, Mike, Picasso, Children's Press, 1988.