Pablo Picasso

Learn more about the famous Spanish artist and his pioneering role in Cubism.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. During his artistic career, which began when he was very young and lasted more than 75 years, he created hundreds of works, not only paintings but also sculptures, prints, illustrations, and ceramics, using all kinds of materials.

Picasso became famous for his pioneering role in Cubism, which he co-founded with George Braque. He continued to develop his different artistic facets at a swift pace comparable to the speed at which culture and technology changed and evolved throughout the 20th century, a time in which Picasso dominated and revolutionized the art scene. For Picasso, each change inspired new and radical ideas. It could be said that he lived several artistic lifetimes.

Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in the southern Spanish city of Malaga, to artist José Ruiz and María Picasso. Rather than adopt the last name Ruiz, which was very common in Spain, the young Picasso preferred to use his mother’s more unusual last name. A child prodigy, legend has it that his first words were “piz, piz” in an attempt to say “lápiz,” the Spanish word for pencil. In 1891, the family moved to Galicia, where Picasso’s artistic abilities began to shine.

At the age of 14 he completed the one-month qualifying examination for the Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona, where his father had been a professor since 1895,  in just one day — a clear sign of his prodigiousness. From there he went to the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, but he didn’t adapt to the cultural environment of the capital. Upon returning to Barcelona in 1900, he began to frequent the famed Els Quatre Gats café, where all the artists and intellectuals of the Modernist movement tended to gather.

It was in Barcelona that he began to move away from the traditional methods in which he’d been trained, focusing instead on a more experimental and innovative approach. He later recounted his successes: "When I was a child, my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the pope.' Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

Picasso left Spain altogether soon after the turn of the century, this time traveling to Paris, beginning what is known as his Blue Period. For almost two years, his paintings were almost exclusively in blue to represent his profound depression over the death of a close friend, Carlos Casagemas. Influences from artists such as El Greco, Van Gogh, and Gauguin are clear in Picasso’s work from this time. Only his love affair with model Fernande Olivier, who became his inspiration until 1910, helped Picasso overcome this dark chapter in his life, marking the start of his Rose Period.

Cubism is the style for which Picasso is best known. His 1907 work The Young Ladies of Avignon (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), which depicts five nude female prostitutes, is the culminating painting of the period in his career known as proto-Cubism. This new artistic concept attempted to challenge the established norms of copying nature exactly as it is onto the canvas by instead reducing and fracturing objects to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The Young Ladies of Avignon broke with both the traditional spatial perspective and the classic representation of the female nude; the influences of African art and Iberian primitivism are clearly visible in some of the women’s faces. Later that same year, Picasso met George Braque, the other creator of Cubism, who was enthusiastic about the new painting. However, the work of art suffered from the general incomprehension surrounding the style Picasso had invented, and it wasn’t exhibited until 1916, nine years later. Today it is one of the most valuable pieces housed in the New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The Young Ladies of Avignon was the springboard from which Picasso and Braque launched Cubism, which influenced all of the cutting-edge artists and had many followers, although it was Matisse who baptized the movement when he spoke out against including Braque’s paintings in an exhibition at the Salon d’Automne. The patronage of collector Gertrude Stein provided key support in the early years of Cubism.

Following a brief affair with Classicism during World War I, Picasso integrated a new style into his art around 1925: Surrealism, the natural successor to Cubism. Picasso’s paintings The Dance and The Kiss were the first of this style. Like many of his pieces from this period, both highlight the tension between the artist and his first wife, the Ukrainian ballerina Olga Kholkhlova, whom he had met during the war when he was working on sets for Russian ballets. Aggressive or threatening women appear in many of his paintings from this time. In 1927, Picasso met a young woman named Marie-Thérèse Walter, and the two began a love affair that would last many years. The minotaur, the artist, and the model, recurring themes throughout his career, also appear during this period.

In January of 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was commissioned to create a large mural for the Second Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. In April of this same year, the news of the bombing of the city of Guernica (Spain) carried out by the Nazi air force shocked the world, not only because of the vast devastation, but also because the only reason for the attack on a civilian target was to practice new bombing methods. Picasso chose the bombing as the theme for the mural and created an enormous anti-war painting that has become a symbol across the world: Guernica, a masterpiece that’s now part of the permanent collection at the Reina Sofia Art Museum in Madrid.

During the World War II, Picasso lived in Paris, where he poured his energy into the art of ceramics. In 1943 he met the young artist Francoise Gilot, and although the couple never married, they two children, Claude and Paloma. From 1947 to 1950, Picasso pursued new lithography techniques. He also became more outwardly political: he joined the Communist Party, and his political ties caused him to become less involved in his art. In 1957 he began work on his 58 interpretations of Las Meninas, a painting by Velázquez. In 1961 Picasso married his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, with whom he shared the rest of his life until his death in 1973 in Mougins, France, at the age of 91.