Artist Picasso

Biographies of Famous Artists – Pablo Picasso

Early Years

The artist that we know as Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, city in the Andalusia region of Spain, on 25 October 1881 and baptized as Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María delos Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Picasso, which represents a long list of saints and various relatives that family wanted to honor. According to Spanish law, the parents’ last names were also added: Ruiz (father) & Picasso (mother). Practically, only first and last part of the full artist’s name are known to the world who is still fascinated by Pablo Picasso artwork.

Artist Picasso was gifted early in life – his mother remembered that his first word was ‘piz’ as a shortened version of Spanish word ‘lapis’ (pencil). His father recognized the boy’s talent early on. Being an art professor, he preached to the young boy the importance of classical training with an emphasis on Picasso line drawings, perspective, and copying famous artists. There is even a story in the Picasso family archives similar to that of young Leonardo da Vinci surpassing his teacher Antonio Verrocchio: father Don José Ruiz’ found young Picasso painting over his unfinished sketch of a pigeon and felt that the thirteen-year-old student had become a master, as Picasso line drawing was so superb. That incident forced the father to give up painting for life. Though the talent of Pablo Picasso doesn’t raise any doubt, the story is a little fictional, as Don José Ruiz’ continued his career as an art professor and artist and the paintings produced later in his life are still offered at art auctions.

Picasso had an interesting insight on the fate of child-prodigies: “Unlike in music, there are no child prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood. It gradually disappears as they get older. It is possible for such a child to become a real painter one day, perhaps even a great painter. But he would have to start right from the beginning. So far as I am concerned, I did not have that genius. My first drawings could never have been shown at an exhibition of children’s drawings. I lacked the clumsiness of a child, his naivety. I made academic drawings at the age of seven, the minute precision of which frightened me.”

One of the early traumatic events in Picasso’s life was a death of his seven-year-old sister, Conchita, who died from diphtheria. Soon after her death the family moved to Barcelona, the city that helped Pablo in a time of sorrow and sadness and would forever hold a very special place in his heart. Artist Picasso considered himself a son of Cataluña, as did another famous artist who was born in that freedom-loving province – Salvador Dali.

As a young artist, Picasso strived in Barcelona, easily passing an entrance exam to the advanced class of the School of Fine Arts at the age of 13. Soon his father decided to send Pablo to Madrid to continue his education in the best art school – the Royal Academy. At the age of 16 the young Picasso was on his own in a city that had a lot to offer. Picasso rebelled against formal instruction and soon dropped out of school. At the same time, the Prado museum became his university, feeding his hungry mind the opportunity to admire originals of many famous artists such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, Francisco Zurbarán, and El Greco. Their influences are clear in Pablo Picasso artwork.

This period in Picasso’s life also marks the falling out with his family, who couldn’t forgive him for his betrayal of classical art principles. It was a life-changing decision for Picasso that he later described in his own words: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Years in Paris

Pablo Picasso – Femme en Bleu
Femme en Bleu

It was only logical for Picasso, who always focused on his creative experiments, to move to the art capital of the world – Paris – the alma mater of artistic innovations in the19-20th centuries. He rented an apartment on Montmartre together with Max Jacob, a poet who helped Picasso to learn French and explore French culture. They had a peculiar arrangement – Picasso worked at night and slept during the day, while Max had the opposite shift. Picasso’s early life in Paris was a constant struggle for survival of an ambitious 19-year old artist; those were the days of hunger, cold, and poverty. His first break came when Picasso was offered a gallery contract by art dealer Pedro Manach. He was given 150 francs a month in exchange for all Pablo Picasso paintings produced in a month. One of his early Parisian period works is “Le Moulin de la Galette” (Guggenheim Museum, New York). Its theme is of mysterious Parisian nightlife was already depicted by other famous artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Dega, and Manet. Young Picasso had his own vision of Paris – lusty decadence, gaudy glamorous nightlife, where the emerging bourgeoisie and vulgar prostitutes paraded in a strange masquerade of human weaknesses – so sinful yet attractive to a young soul.

During this same time, Picasso started a journal with his anarchist friend in Madrid – Arte Joven (Young Art), where he published a few of his illustrations depicting the life of the poor. For journal illustrations he started to sign his works simply as ‘Picasso’ and dropped ‘Pablo Ruiz y’ Picasso. Picasso would continue this life of constant travel between main European cities for the rest of his long life, never permanently settling in any particular place.

The Parisian period in Picasso’s life connected him to lots of important acquaintances that he preserved for the rest of his career. Among them were American art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein. Some of Stein’s relatives also became patrons of young artist Picasso for shorter periods of time while Gertrude Stein collected his work all her life. As art critic Henry McBride noted, Gertrude Stein “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces. She recognized them a long way off.” It all started when Stein’s trust fund accumulated 8,000 francs which she decided to spend buying art, including such masterpieces as Gauguin’s “Sunflowers” and Cézanne’s “Bathers”. Wall art on 27 Rue de Fleurus, the Parisian address of Gertrude Stein, was not the only attraction; her home soon became a sophisticated Saturday night salon for a distinguished social circle: Pablo Picasso, Fernande Olivier (Picasso’s mistress), Georges Braque (artist), André Derain (artist), Max Jacob (poet), Guillaume Apollinaire (poet), Marie Laurencin (Apollinaire’s mistress and an artist), Henri Rousseau (painter), and Joseph Stella.

There is a little anecdote from Picasso’s life in Paris that is associated with the infamous theft of the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from Louvre in 1911. Picasso’s friend, poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was arrested on suspicion of this daring art theft and for some reason accused Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning but was later exonerated along with Apollinaire.

“Blue & Rose” periods
“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” ~Pablo Picasso
The human mind associates colors with emotions, with blue being the color of depth, cold, misery and despair. In European Christian tradition, iconography gave blue a meaning of heaven and divinity. That synthesis is clear in Picasso “Blue Period” (1901-1904) when he was mostly focused on portraying the life of outcasts: beggars, homeless, street actors, and penniless artists, like himself and most of his friends. Being an outcast of society was a philosophy of life, a pre-requisite of producing something meaningful as an artist. According to Picasso’s closest friend Sabartes, “Picasso believed Art to be the son of Sadness and Suffering… that sadness lent itself to meditation and that suffering was fundamental to life… If we demand sincerity of an artist, we must remember that sincerity is not to be found outside the realm of grief.” Artists would see themselves as outcasts of society, indulging in depression and romanticizing misery – and it was true not only in art but also in literature and poetry. Rainer Maria Rilke’s reaction to Picasso’s painting of the “Family of Saltimbanques” was: “But who, tell me, are these wanderers, who are yet more fugitive than we are…”

The beginning of Picasso blue period is associated with the suicide of one of Picasso’s close friends, Carlos Casagemas, who took his own life after being rejected by the woman he loved. Many of the paintings from that period were created in Barcelona, as Picasso divided his time between France and Spain. In Picasso paintings of that period we can clearly see the influence of El Greco with his elongated tragic figures and poses, as well as the use of a similar palette with light-yellow skin and deep black shadows. The “blue period” marks the final break with classicism as Picasso started to emerge as one of the titans of modern art. However, since overwhelming emotions of grief, melancholy, and pessimism in Picasso artwork didn’t sit well with art patrons, he was not able sell his paintings and make a living, and extreme poverty became a reality of life and art.

The Old Guitarist, c.1903
The Old Guitarist, c.1903
Gradually, a change emerged in Picasso’s palette. Soft pinks, reds, and greens began to appear in his works and make his images more energetic and full of life. This period is somewhat misleadingly called the “rose period” by art critics but there is much more variety of colors and rose was not the predominant color in his paintings. The change in mood brought Picasso commercial success and by 1905 Pablo Picasso paintings started to sell. He had completed his transition from youth to maturity; he had a studio, he was in love, and his life had a new beginning. At that time, Picasso met Fernande Olivier (born Amélie Lang) who ran away from her abusive husband, changed her name and found work as an artist’s model in Paris. Their explosive affair lasted for seven years and being passionate and impatient, both were tortured by mutual jealousy. Fernande was a model for a pivotal piece in Picasso’s career: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. This work took hundreds of sketches and drawings in preparation.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, c.1907
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, c.1907
In 1907 Picasso finished “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” where human figures were depicted simultaneously from several vantage points. This marked the beginning of a period called cubism. It was the logical culmination of a process that started in the 18th century when philosophers began to question the narrative role of art: “Is it supposed to depict reality by copying nature or should it be an art form in itself?” It created the perfect climate for development of avant-garde artists moving towards abstract art. Supported by the theoretical works of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, artists like Picasso and his follower Braque made a bold step into a new realm – a radical break with the classical dominance of content over form, with the purpose of painting becoming the painting itself. In Picasso’s own words, “Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?”

The birth of cubism came from the professional rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who met at the salon of Gertrude Stein and shared a common interest in Greek, Iberian and African primitive art. The “Blue Nude” painting by Matisse caused such a scandal at the annual Parisian art show of contemporary French art (Salons des Indépendent) that it propelled Matisse to the status of a leading avant-garde artist and later the judge of the Salon. Art critic Vauxcelles referred to Matisse and his followers as Les Fauves (wild animals), thus coining the term for the art movement of fauvism. After Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” there was a mass defection from Matisse’s camp of followers to Picasso’s. One of the defectors was Braque, whose paintings Matisse rejected for the Salon’s exhibit out of jealousy by using his power as a judge. Matisse made fun of Braque’s new technique of deconstructing landscapes as a collection of “little cubes.” This gave Vauxcelles an opportunity to coin the term cubism.

Cubism at its early stages is characterized as analytical cubism – a technique that allows an artist to deconstruct an object as if it is viewed from different angles and focus on its essence instead of realistic representation of visual appearance. Picasso and Braque were working side by side, experimenting with color, subjects and faceted technique. Picasso paintings of this period are represented mostly by still lives and landscapes in bright colors, with hard edges, broken forms and flattened space that defies the traditional rules of classical perspective. It is interesting that Picasso, as the father of modern art, never gave up the third dimension – his paintings never became pure abstract art. He played with dimensions and dared to remove the third dimension but never let his work become abstract art, like the works of Mondrian, for example.

By 1911 cubism quickly became a popular style with many young artists contributing their work to define the movement. In Montparnasse, cubism was promoted by art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and was soon recognized by critics as the “cubist school” of art. Picasso and Braque did not stay still – their friendly rivalry resulted in what we now call synthetic cubism. Picasso’s “Still-Life with Chair Caning” was a break-through piece, which for the first time used collage elements: oil cloth pasted into the canvas with a rope framing the oval painting. In the upper left-hand corner are the letters JOU which give us a glimpse of a secret game going on between Picasso & Braque: leaving each other coded messages inside the paintings. After this, collage became an integral part of synthetic cubism, featuring newspaper clippings, sheet music, material objects, etc. In the works of this period fragmentation was less important and objects were pushed together to form a composition with transparent flat planes – a flat virtual tour of objects that became a readable artistic map.

In 1912 Fernande Olivier left Picasso after he became obsessed with his new love – Marcelle Humbert (also known as Eva Gouel). Later in life, Fernande received a small pension from Picasso …and a million francs in exchange for her silence and agreement not to publish her memoirs while both were still alive. Eva’s life with Pablo was very short – she died only 3 years later in 1915.

Portrait of Olga in the Armchair
Portrait of Olga in the Armchair

1918 marked an important event – Picasso married Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova, whom he met while working on decorations for Ballet Russe. Their relationship soon became an unbearable conflict of lifestyles and personalities; the bohemian soul of Picasso rebelled against the formal, high-society life immensely enjoyed by his wife.

Pablo Picasso – Maternity

The birth of their son Paulo (1925) turned Picasso to the theme of mother and child and his art style changed to a conservative neoclassicism.

Pablo Picasso – The Dream
The Dream

But Picasso could not be tamed for a long period of time, As his personal conflict with Olga had grew deeper, his art reflected his anger and rage in the depiction of women as tortured masses of human flesh. In 1927 Picasso started an affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter. He stayed married to Khokhlova to preserve his growing wealth from the inevitable division of property that would result from a divorce. His wife’s mental health gradually deteriorated until she finally suffered a total mental breakdown while Picasso continued his double life with Marie-Thérèse. In 1935 Marie-Thérèse gave birth to their daughter Maya and just a year later Picasso fell in love with a new woman, Dora Maar.

They met on the terrace of the famous Café les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris known to attract artistic and intellectual élite. She was 29 years old and he was 54. Dora was an established photographer who also studied painting in Paris at the Ecole d’Art Decoratif. Their relationship coincided with the dark period spanning the years of Spanish Civil war and the Second World War. In 1937 Dora Maar documented through her photography the creation of one of the most monumental paintings by Picasso: Guernica. – This painting was his response to the Nazi bombing of this ancient Spanish city. The passionate depiction of the tragedies of war and suffering of innocent civilians made this black, grey and white canvas a symbol of peace.

Pablo Picasso – Guernica

Picasso clearly explained his position as he worked on Guenica: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? … In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso was often harassed by the Gestapo. Allegedly, a German officer who saw a photo of Guernica in his apartment asked him, , “Did you do that?” to which Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

In spite of Franco’s desire to return Guernica to Spain, Picasso objected to this until the Spanish people would be able to breathe freely under new constitution. Picasso painting was returned to Spain in 1981 as a symbol for Spaniards of both the end of the Franco regime and Basque nationalism.

Dora Maar was Picasso’s companion and “private muse” as he called her, during the tumultuous years from 1936 through April 1944. When he left her for young Françoise Gilot, Dora became mentally unstable, reclusive and turned to poetry for comfort and expression of her sorrow:

“The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — its exile suspended
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off.

I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.”

Pablo Picasso – Portrait of Dora Maar
Portrait of Dora Maar

After parting ways with Picasso, Dora’s mental stability became a major concern to her friends. She underwent shock therapy treatments and sessions with a psychiatrist who finally gave up. Dora became increasingly interested in religion and embraced a life of chastity and prayer for the rest of her years. She was famously quoted: “After Picasso, only God.”

While his relationship with Maar was winding down, Picasso met a young woman – Françoise Gilot – a beautiful, free-spirited, intelligent and aspiring artist herself. She wasn’t immediately smitten by the 61-year old famous artist and Picasso had to use all his energy, charm and passionate pursuit to win her over. As an artist she enjoyed watching him work in his studio and discussing art with one of the greatest innovators of 20 century, but as an intelligent 21-year old she could see the pitfalls of their life together. Gilot became Picasso’s companion for ten years and the mother to his 2 youngest children, Claude and Paloma.

Most of Picasso artworks in his later years would use the art of famous masters that inspired him in his youth as a subject matter for his innovative canvases. For example, he created 44 paintings based on the composition of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” a masterpiece that impressed him while he was a young art student in Madrid, studying in the Prado museum. Picasso became increasingly productive and worked very hard, as if trying to cheat death by painting. He once told a friend: “DEATH holds no fear for me. It has a kind of beauty. What I am afraid of is falling ill and not being able to work. That’s lost time.”

At the same time Picasso’s personal life was in turmoil – Gilot became increasingly frustrated with his oppressive temperament, infidelity and even violence. He was jealous of her friendships, art pursuits and once, in a rage, even extinguished a cigarette on her cheek. Françoise left Picasso with the children and moved to Paris. She was the only woman who really mastered “surviving Picasso” – she left with her head up never looked back, and ended up having a successful marriage and an amazing art career. She didn’t end up, as Picasso’s other women, suicidal, lonely and on the edge of a mental break down. Picasso was furious that Gilot dared to leave him and his reaction was vengeful and cruel: Françoise received word that the house she shared with Picasso has been emptied of all things she treasured: her book collection, letters Matisse’s works and even the drawings Picasso gave her over the years. Picasso went even further and pressured art dealer and gallery owner, Kahnweiler, to stop representing Gilot as an artist.

Picasso hated to be alone and only a month after Gilot left him, Jacqueline Roque, a sales girl from a pottery shop, began spending time in his home and looking after him. Her devotion to him was complete and sacrificial. Picasso’s daughter Maya remembered how Jacqueline would call him ’monsignor’ while catering to his every whim. In 1955 Picasso’s wife Olga died leaving him free of matrimonial ties. Six years later, in 1961, he married Jacqueline Roque in a quiet ceremony.

Seeking a peaceful place to live and work, Picasso bought a lovely castle in the south of France where he spent his later years and had an immense bout of productivity. Jacqueline was his ‘gate keeper,’ trying to provide Picasso solitude for his work thus cutting off a lot of his old friends and even family. Pablo Picasso paintings were created with phenomenal speed and productivity, while he experimented with new media and even created a few new techniques along the way. Picasso would start his day around 11:30 in the morning, interacting with an endless stream of visitors to his chateau (which he enjoyed greatly), giving him bursts of energy, ideas and much craved attention. After a 2 o’clock meal and a traditional Spanish siesta he would take a walk in his park and sometimes gather some vegetables and flowers to paint. A typical dinner with friends would end around 11:30 pm after which Picasso would retreat to his studio to work until 3 in the morning. Such a schedule would take its toll on a man half his age but Picasso didn’t care. Even after several health problems that put him in the hospital he refused to write a will as this would have made him face the inevitable – his mortality.

In his last days Picasso finished an amazingly truthful self portrait: his piercing eyes looked death straight in the face. Picasso created self portraits for every phase in his life and they tell us a great story of this complicated man and artistic genius. He died on April 8, 1973 at the age of 91 leaving us with about 50,000 works: 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 2,880 ceramics, roughly 12,000 drawings, many thousands of prints, and numerous tapestries and rugs.

Today, Pablo Picasso art for sale commands records prices at art auctions and Picasso prints are widely collected by art connoisseurs. The facts of his biography give us a glimpse of insight into complicated life of a genius who was tempted, tortured and glorified during his lifetime.

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