Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was a Spanish painter and sculptor, generally considered the greatest artist of the 20th century. He was unique as an inventor of forms, as an innovator of styles and techniques, as a master of various media, and as one of the most prolific artists in history. He created more than 20,000 works.
Training and Early Work
Born in Málaga on October 25, 1881, Picasso was the son of José Ruiz Blasco, an art teacher, and María Picasso y Lopez. Until 1898 he always used his father’s name, Ruiz, and his mother’s maiden name, Picasso, to sign his pictures. After about 1901 he dropped “Ruiz” and used his mother’s maiden name to sign his pictures. Picasso’s genius manifested itself early: at the age of 10 he made his first paintings, and at 15 he performed brilliantly on the entrance examinations to Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts. His large academic canvas Science and Charity (1897, Museo Picasso, Barcelona), depicting a doctor, a nun, and a child at a sick woman’s bedside, won a gold medal.
Between 1900 and 1902, Picasso made three trips to Paris, finally settling there in 1904. He found the city’s bohemian street life fascinating, and his pictures of people in dance halls and cafés show how he assimilated the postimpressionism of the French painter Paul Gauguin and the symbolist painters called the Nabis. The themes of the French painters Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as the style of the latter, exerted the strongest influence. Picasso’s Blue Room (1901, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) reflects the work of both these painters and, at the same time, shows his evolution toward the Blue Period, so called because various shades of blue dominated his work for the next few years. Expressing human misery, the paintings portray blind figures, beggars, alcoholics, and prostitutes, their somewhat elongated bodies reminiscent of works by the Spanish artist El Greco.
Shortly after settling in Paris in a shabby building known as the Bateau-Lavoir (“laundry barge,” which it resembled), Picasso met Fernande Olivier, the first of many companions to influence the theme, style, and mood of his work. With this happy relationship, Picasso changed his palette to pinks and reds; the years 1904 and 1905 are thus called the Rose Period. Many of his subjects were drawn from the circus, which he visited several times a week; one such painting is Family of Saltimbanques (1905, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.). In the figure of the harlequin, Picasso represented his alter ego, a practice he repeated in later works as well. Dating from his first decade in Paris are friendships with the poet Max Jacob, the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, the art dealers Ambroise Vollard and Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, and the American expatriate writers Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, who were his first important patrons; Picasso did portraits of them all.
In the summer of 1906, during Picasso’s stay in Gosol, Spain, his work entered a new phase, marked by the influence of Greek, Iberian, and African art. His celebrated portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) reveals a masklike treatment of her face. The key work of this early period, however, is Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), so radical in style-its picture surface resembling fractured glass-that it was not even understood by contemporary avant-garde painters and critics. Destroyed were spatial depth and the ideal form of the female nude, which Picasso restructured into harsh, angular planes.
Cubism-Analytic and Synthetic
Inspired by the volumetric treatment of form by the French postimpressionist artist Paul Cezanne, Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque painted landscapes in 1908 in a style later described by a critic as being made of “little cubes,” thus leading to the term cubism. Some of their paintings are so similar that it is difficult to tell them apart. Working together between 1908 and 1911, they were concerned with breaking down and analyzing form, and together they developed the first phase of cubism, known as analytic cubism. Monochromatic color schemes were favored in their depictions of radically fragmented motifs, whose several sides were shown simultaneously. Picasso’s favorite subjects were musical instruments, still-life objects, and his friends; one famous portrait is Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (1910, Art Institute of Chicago). In 1912, pasting paper and a piece of oilcloth to the canvas and combining these with painted areas, Picasso created his first collage, Still Life with Chair Caning (Musée Picasso, Paris). This technique marked a transition to synthetic cubism. This second phase of cubism is more decorative, and color plays a major role, although shapes remain fragmented and flat. Picasso was to practice synthetic cubism throughout his career, but by no means exclusively. Two works of 1915 demonstrate his simultaneous work in different styles: Harlequin (Museum of Modern Art) is a synthetic cubist painting, whereas a drawing of his dealer, Vollard, now in the Metropolitan Museum, is executed in his Ingresque style, so called because of its draftsmanship, emulating that of the 19th-century French neoclassical artist Jean August Dominique Ingres
Picasso created cubist sculptures as well as paintings. The bronze bust Fernande Olivier (also called Head of a Woman, 1909, Museum of Modern Art) shows his consummate skill in handling three-dimensional form. He also made constructions-such as Mandolin and Clarinet (1914, Musée Picasso)-from odds and ends of wood, metal, paper, and nonartistic materials, in which he explored the spatial hypotheses of cubist painting. His Glass of Absinthe (1914, Museum of Modern Art), combining a silver sugar strainer with a painted bronze sculpture, anticipates his much later “found object” creations, such as Baboon and Young (1951, Museum of Modern Art), as well as pop art objects of the 1960s.
Realist and Surrealist Works
During World War I (1914-1918), Picasso went to Rome, working as a designer with Sergey Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He met and married the dancer Olga Koklova. In a realist style, Picasso made several portraits of her around 1917, of their son (for example, Paulo as Harlequin; 1924, Musée Picasso), and of numerous friends. In the early 1920s he did tranquil, neoclassical pictures of heavy, sculpturesque figures, an example being Three Women at the Spring (1921, Museum of Modern Art), and works inspired by mythology, such as The Pipes of Pan (1923, Musée Picasso). At the same time, Picasso also created strange pictures of small-headed bathers and violent convulsive portraits of women which are often taken to indicate the tension he experienced in his marriage. Although he stated he was not a surrealist, many of his pictures have a surreal and disturbing quality, as in Sleeping Woman in Armchair (1927, Private Collection, Brussels) and Seated Bather (1930, Museum of Modern Art).
Paintings of the Early 1930s
Several cubist paintings of the early 1930s, stressing harmonious, curvilinear lines and expressing an underlying eroticism, reflect Picasso’s pleasure with his newest love, Marie Thérèse Walter, who gave birth to their daughter Maïa in 1935. Marie Thérèse, frequently portrayed sleeping, also was the model for the famous Girl Before a Mirror (1932, Museum of Modern Art). In 1935 Picasso made the etching Minotauromachy, a major work combining his minotaur and bullfight themes; in it the disemboweled horse, as well as the bull, prefigure the imagery of Guernica, a mural often called the most important single work of the 20th century.
Picasso was moved to paint the huge mural Guernica shortly after German planes, acting on orders from Spain’s authoritarian leader Francisco Franco, bombarded the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish civil war. Completed in less than two months, Guernica was hung in the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris International Exposition of 1937. The painting does not portray the event; rather, Picasso expressed his outrage by employing such imagery as the bull, the dying horse, a fallen warrior, a mother and dead child, a woman trapped in a burning building, another rushing into the scene, and a figure leaning from a window and holding out a lamp. Despite the complexity of its symbolism, and the impossibility of definitive interpretation, Guernica makes an overwhelming impact in its portrayal of the horrors of war. It was on extended loan at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art from 1939 until 1981, when it was returned to Spain at Madrid’s Prado Museum. In 1992 the work was moved to the city’s new museum of 20th-century art, the Reina Sofia Art Center. Dora Maar, Picasso’s next companion to be portrayed, took photographs of Guernica while the work was in progress.
World War II and After
Picasso’s palette grew somber with the onset of World War II (1939-1945), and death is the subject of numerous works, such as Still Life with Steer’s Skull (1942, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany) and The Charnel House (1945, Museum of Modern Art). He formed a new liaison during the 1940s with the painter Françoise Gilot who bore him two children, Claude and Paloma; they appear in many works that recapitulate his earlier styles. The last of Picasso’s companions to be portrayed was Jacqueline Roque, whom he met in 1953 and married in 1961. He then spent much of his time in southern France.
Many of Picasso’s later pictures were based on works by great masters of the past-Diego Velazquez, Gustave Courbet, Eugene Delacroix, and Edouard Manet. In addition to painting, Picasso worked in various media, making hundreds of lithographs in the renowned Paris graphics workshop, Atelier Mourlot. Ceramics also engaged his interest, and in 1947, in Vallauris, he produced nearly 2000 pieces. Picasso made important sculptures during this time: Man with Sheep (1944, Philadelphia Museum of Art), an over-life-size bronze, emanates peace and hope, and She-Goat (1950, Museum of Modern Art), a bronze cast from an assemblage of flowerpots, a wicker basket, and other diverse materials, is humorously charming. In 1964 Picasso completed a welded steel maquette (model) for the 18.3-m (60-ft) sculpture Head of a Woman (unveiled in 1967), for Chicago’s Civic Center. In 1968, during a seven-month period, he created an amazing series of 347 engravings, restating earlier themes: the circus, the bullfight, the theater, and lovemaking. Throughout Picasso’s lifetime, his work was exhibited on countless occasions. Most unusual, however, was the 1971 exhibition at the Louvre, in Paris, honoring him on his 90th birthday; until then, living artists had not been shown there. In 1980 a major retrospective showing of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Picasso died in his villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie near Mougins on April 8, 1973.