It is impossible to discuss modern art without invoking the name Pablo Picasso, who rose from relatively humble beginnings to become an international superstar. Picasso was a true artistic revolutionary, unafraid to break artistic conventions to carry art into a dynamic new era. That enduring spark of avant-garde innovation translated into a remarkably productive career, resulting in a body of work that has become one of the most coveted of all time at the auction block. Case in point: Picasso’s The Women of Algiers (Version O)(1955) sold for $179 million in 2015, setting the highest record price for a painting at the time.
Pablo Picasso: Modern Art’s Major Innovator
To understand Picasso paintings like Les Femmes d’Alger, created toward the end of Picasso’s career, one needs to start at the beginning of the versatile artist’s life. Picasso was born in Màlaga, Spain, and expressed an early interest in art. His father, an artist and art teacher himself, observed his son’s skills and encouraged him to pursue artistic training. That training eventually led the young teen to the Barcelona Academy of Art and then to Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, a revered institution renowned for its rigor.
Just as at Barcelona, Picasso would have been challenged to perfect representations of the body in the pursuit of traditional Academic painterly excellence. Such excellence emphasized Classically-rendered bodies, carefully drafted compositions, and smooth, refined painterly surfaces. Picasso triumphed in his ability to master these characteristics – his early work from Greco-Roman models are a testament to his talents – but it seems he sought more from his artistic career.
In 1900, Just before his twentieth birthday, Picasso travelled to Paris. At the time, the city was widely considered to be the artistic mecca of Europe. There, he was exposed to the lingering embers of innovation kindled by late 19th-century Post-Impressionists. When he returned to Spain, he entered into a period of rapid transformation summarized in the following timeline.
Blue Period (1901 to 1904)
Comprising the early years of the twentieth century before Picasso’s return to Paris, Picasso’s “Blue Period” was named after-the-fact, thanks to the abrupt shift in his palette to focus on saturated shades of blue and blue-green. Some have described these works as conveying a sense of melancholy, in part because many of the figures one finds in Picasso’s Blue Period paintings tend to be sinewy and gaunt, with dazed or distant expressions. Beneath these expressive aspects, these paintings also reveal that Picasso was already beginning to transition in his figural style. Works like The Blue Room (1901; Phillips Collection) and The Old Guitarist (1903; Art Institute of Chicago) reveal how Picasso was experimenting with the representation of both space and form, perhaps foreshadowing his Cubist future.
Rose Period (1905-1906)
In contrast to his pensive Blue Period, Picasso’s subsequent Rose Period embodied a renewed vivacity. In some cases, jovial harlequins, like those captured in Family of Saltimbanques (1905; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C) and other joyous subjects came to life through a warmer palette accented with blush pinks. In other cases, there was a sense of the Blue Period continuing into the red. In paintings like Mother and Child (1905; private collection) there was also a stronger sense of intimacy or tenderness, perhaps because it was during this period that Picasso met his first romantic muse, Fernande Olivier.
While specialists might debate the exact beginning of Cubism, many would agree that a work Picasso completed in July 1907 served as a crucial landmark in the movement’s development. This painting, one of the treasures held today by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is The Ladies of Avignon (1907) and is unforgettable for its novel approach to the figure. For arguably the first time in his career, Picasso wholly abandoned the rules of anatomical draftsmanship to instead render the female body as a series of fractured facets or planes of color.
At the same time, he played with perspective. Inspired by predecessor Paul Cézanne, who was one of the first artists to experiment with multiple vantage points in one painting, Picasso created in The Ladies of Avignon a shallow picture plane filled with seemingly movable planes. Nevertheless, this pivotal Picasso painting is usually considered proto-Cubist; it served as an essential precursor to the two main evolutions of Cubism, also spurred by Picasso.
1. Analytic Cubism (1908-1912)
Analytic Cubism reflects the first phase of the Cubism movement. It was characterized by the dissection of forms within the compositional space to investigate different vantage points within one compositional space. This breakdown into facets of color, like that seen in Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)(1910; Museum of Modern Art, New York) allowed Picasso to play with their recombination within the composition, not unlike shards of glass swept together after shattering. During this exploration, Picasso used a more subdued palette to underscore the importance of form. Pablo Picasso and the Cubist art movement are mutually synonymous. And while the great artist progressed to Synthetic Cubism, he continued to produce works representative of Analytic Cubism throughout his artistic career.
2. Synthetic Cubism (1913-1925)
Synthetic Cubism also involved the dissection of forms. The key difference, though, was that this breakdown was shown through the bringing together – synthesis – of different media. In short: through Synthetic Cubism, Picasso introduced collage to the fine art world. One of the reasons this new technique was so influential was that it exposed art audiences to the potential that materials destined for other functions could be repurposed as modes of artistic expression.
Rope, for example, becomes the decorative frame for Picasso’s Still Life with Caned Chair (1912; Musée Picasso, Paris). The cut paper additions enliven the textures of Three Musicians (1921; Philadelphia Museum of Art). Sand and wood-shavings add texture and intrigue. Such additions reveal how Picasso still contemplated the elements of form while also encouraging viewers to see the materials of art in new ways in this phase.
From Neoclassicism to Surrealism (1921-1937)
By the 1920s, Cubism had become popular among a growing network of artists; figures from Jean Metzinger to Diego Rivera were engaging with aspects of it. Meanwhile, during the 1920s and much of the 1930s, Picasso entered an interim phase of his career where he sought new inspiration, the result of which was a strikingly varied output. For example, his travels to Italy in the latter years of the 1910s encouraged works like Seated Nude Drying her Foot (1921; Berggruen Museum) that recalled his earlier days working within a Classically inspired canon. He also returned to earlier subject matter like the harlequins that appeared in his Rose Period compositions, perhaps in part in response to a world in chaos. The aftermath of World War I and the later Great Depression created an air of tension that enveloped the globe, and perhaps even a great like Picasso could not avoid it.
Post-War Work (1937 – 1970s)
Evidence of the influence of the world’s chaos manifested in 1937 through Picasso’s Guernica (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid). A colossal composition conjured in black, white, and gray tones, Guernica reflected a violent outpouring of Picasso’s disgust over the horrors of war. This intense emotion was spurred by the Nazi bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain in the early days of World War II, making Guernica – originally commissioned by the Spanish government for the Parisian World’s Fair that year – a remarkably powerful means to raise awareness of war atrocities.
Today, the work is also recognized as launching a renewed expressionist element to Picasso’s paintings as he continued to revisit ideas and approaches that he had only touched upon in his earlier years. From experimentation in sculpture – like his iconic sculpture known simply as the Chicago Picasso (1967) – to print series and artful conversations with past masters – like his Femmes d’Alger noted above, an homage to 19th-century painter Eugène Delacroix – Picasso was endlessly innovative up until the final moments of his career.
Ready to Peruse Picasso’s Popularity?
Thanks to this incredible diversity in his body of work, Picasso continues to captivate fans and collectors around the world. His timeless and immediately recognizable styles mean that his works still garner incredibly high auction prices, but Picasso prints still sell at auction at relatively accessible price points. Understanding this timeline to his oeuvre can help when navigating catalogs or auction listings. Even more generally, they help to showcase why Picasso will forever be part of the larger timeline of art history.