Picasso’s world: the ultimate guide to the Spanish painter’s influences and inspirations 

The people, places, and things that forged the revolutionary artist’s enduring legacy

picasso-az-880-550

One of history’s most prolific and influential artists, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) devoted his life to art. During his nearly 80 years of art making, Picasso produced over 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, theatre sets and costumes. 

Each period of Picasso’s art was defined by the important events and figures in his life, from impassioned love affairs and personal tragedies to the socio-political climate of Europe. Picasso’s body of work emerges as a map of his own experiences. 

To mark 50 years since Picasso’s death, Christie’s is commemorating the artist and his legacy throughout 2023 with a series of special events.

picasso-nature-morte-a-la-fenetre-69865091-2400

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Nature morte à la fenêtre, 1932. Oil on canvas. 51 x 63⅞ in (129.7 x 162.3 cm). Estimate upon request. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 11 May 2023 at Christie's in New York

What were some of Picasso’s inspirations?

His father

Picasso was born on 25 October 1881 in Málaga, Spain. The son of a painter, he began to study art at very young age. By the age of ten, Picasso’s unusual adeptness for drawing was clear, and by 13 his father vowed to quit art, noting that his son had already surpassed him.

Bullfights

A native Spaniard, Picasso was fascinated with the bullfight, or la corrida. As a symbol of virility and valour, the matador became an extension of the artist’s own persona. ‘[The corrida] is something in [Picasso] which is as much a part of his life as going up to the studio,’ wrote close friend Hélène Parmelin, ‘He dresses in his best and goes with his wife and it is the festival of the sun. But all the rest of the time, too, the spirit of the corrida is part of his way of life. He has bulls in his soul. The matadors are his cousins. The arena is his house.’

Café culture

In 1904, at the age of 23, Picasso befriended Guillaume Apollinaire shortly after settling in Paris. The French writer was a fixture in many of the Parisian avant-garde circles that flourished at the beginning of the 20th century, and he had a profound influence on the Surrealists. The friendship broadened Picasso’s intellectual interests and deepened his engagement with Paris’s bustling café culture, which provided essential fodder for his Cubist works. Found pieces of newspaper, bottles of absinthe and other vestiges of the Parisian bohemian’s way of life emerged as frequent subjects.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Cafetière, tasse et pipe, 1911. Oil on canvas. 18⅛ x 10⅝ in (46 x 27 cm). Estimate: $8,000,000-12,000,000. Offered in Masterpieces from the S.I. Newhouse Collection on 11 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

African and Iberian sculpture

In the early 1900s Picasso first encountered Iberian and African sculpture, sparking a new vocabulary with which he could portray the figure. Picasso became enchanted with the simplified and expressive distortions in these artefacts. While the influence of Iberian sculpture is first seen near the end of the artist’s Rose Period, with works such as Gertrude Stein (1905-06), the full impact of African sculpture came to fruition in the celebrated Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). As Picasso later recalled, ‘The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day.’

Performance

Performance, theatre and music played an important role in Picasso’s oeuvre, from dancers and singers on the Paris stage, to the harlequins and circus performers of his Rose Period, and the guitars and mandolins featured in his Cubist compositions. Picasso contributed to ten ballet productions, including six for the Ballets Russes. Between 1917 and 1924, he designed sets, costumes and stage curtains for four major productions including, Parade (1917), where he met his first wife Olga, The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), Pulcinella (1920) and Mercure (1924). The sets and costumes he created for the ballet echoed the shifting styles elsewhere in his art.

Music

Le vieux guitariste (1903-04) is one of the most iconic paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period. Picasso also incorporated the Spanish guitar into many of his Cubist paintings and collages, but his most salient guitars were crafted in 1912 out of ordinary cardboard, paper, string, and wire. They were sculptures unlike any other. Instead of relying on traditional sculptural methods, Picasso made the radical leap into a new technique — assemblage. Guitar flipped the boundaries of sculpture on its side, a three- dimensional object completely opened to space, where solid mass became represented by the void. The guitar and the musician continued to be important motifs for the artist throughout his career.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), L’espagnole devant le miroir, 1903. Pen and brush and India ink on paper. 12⅜ x 8⅝ in (31.5 x 22 cm). Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale on 13 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

The Old Masters

According to Hélène Parmelin, Picasso would often muse, ‘I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me work.’ Indeed, Picasso was constantly conversing with the artists of the past — whether recent or Old Masters. Also quoted as saying, ‘good artists copy, great artists steal,’ Picasso unrelentingly mined the works of the likes of Lucas Cranach the Younger, Diego Velázquez, Édouard Manet, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among others, reworking and reinvigorating the artistic canon.

Throughout the 1960s, Picasso entered a close dialogue with Rembrandt. Like Picasso, Rembrandt enjoyed a long career and often inserted himself in various guises within his work. Of Picasso’s budding fascination with the musketeer motif, the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, recalled, ‘It happened when Picasso started to study Rembrandt.’ It was also during this time that Picasso, recovering from surgery, reread many classic works of literature, including Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. As a result, the artist began to fervently explore the subject of the musketeer clad in 17th-century attire. Nearing old age, Picasso saw the virile musketeer as an extension of his own persona.

Who were Picasso’s muses?

Fernande Olivier

Fernande Olivier first encountered Picasso shortly after he moved to the Bateau-Lavoir in Paris. A stylish artists’ model, Fernande played an important role in the development of Picasso’s work during these critical early years, and her image was translated into the various stylistic pursuits he explored. Their relationship lasted seven years, during which the Spanish painter made more than 60 portraits of ‘La Belle Fernande.’ Picasso’s Cubist sculpture inspired by her form Tête de femme (Fernande) made history in 2022, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold one of two casts in their collection for $48,480,000, the highest price ever achieved for a sculpture by the artist.

Olga Khokhlova

Picasso met his first wife, the Ukrainian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova, in 1917 while the two prepared for Serge Diaghilev’s premiere production of Parade. The following year they were married. As with all his romantic partners, Khokhlova took centre stage in Picasso’s art, assuming a variety of guises throughout their relationship. Often, Picasso transformed her into a Neoclassical goddess, exaggerating her features volumetrically to mythological proportions; elsewhere, she is portrayed as an Italianate Madonna, a Spanish matron in a lace mantilla, and as a new mother after the birth of their son Paul. Towards the end of their relationship, Khokhlova is depicted as a monstrous hybrid creature—such as in Le Grand nu au fauteuil rouge (1929)—a reflection of the couple’s turbulent relationship.

Marie-Thérèse Walter

‘The day I met Marie-Thérèse I realised that I had before me what I had always been dreaming about,’ said Picasso of his, golden-haired lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. From the moment they met in 1927, Picasso was instantly captivated by her statuesque figure and sculptural visage. At the time of their meeting, Picasso’s relationship with his wife, Olga, was tumultuous. As a married man, he hid Walter’s presence in his art throughout the first four years of their relationship, often depicting her in codified terms. In 1931, Walter’s image would finally become recognisable in Picasso’s paintings and sculptures. The couple had a daughter, Maya, in 1935.

The artist’s portraits of Walter are characterized by their undulating curves, lilac-tinted skin and jewel-toned palettes. There is often a dreamlike quality to her, whether caught in an idyllic state as in Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) (1932) or in quiet repose as demonstrated in Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932). The latter previously held the distinction of most expensive painting sold at auction when it achieved $106,482,500 at Christie’s in May 2010.

Dora Maar

According to Dora Maar, Picasso would change his artistic style, as well as his life, friends, and dog whenever he changed his mistress. The Spanish-speaking, Surrealist photographer, painter, and intellectual was Picasso’s lover from around 1935-45. However, Maar was more than just a muse. She was an artist in her own right and an active participant in the pair’s intense artistic dialogue, as seen in her important series of photographs that document the creation of Guernica. From Femme qui pleure to the plethora of seated portraits from the late 1930s and early 40s, Picasso’s images of Maar are among the greatest of his wartime work. The portraits Picasso painted of her are not only a testament to the couple’s relationship but a powerful symbol of renewed artistic creativity in the face of terror.

Lee Miller

Picasso met the American photojournalist and model Lee Miller in 1937, when they vacationed in the South of France, along with a who’s who of the avant-garde that included Paul Eluard, Man Ray and Picasso’s then-lover Dora Maar. While Picasso and Miller were never lovers, Picasso painted seven portraits of Miller in Arlésienne costume — a tribute to Van Gogh. Coming after his enormous anti-war painting, Guernica, and before the autumn when he focused on the haunting motif of the Femme qui pleure, the series marked an important time of escapism and creative exchange for Picasso.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), L'Arlésienne (Lee Miller), 1937. Oil and ripolin on canvas. 28⅞ x 23½ in (72.7 x 59.8 cm). Estimate: $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in Masterpieces from the S.I. Newhouse Collection on 11 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Françoise Gilot

Picasso’s post-war muse was Françoise Gilot. A young artist, Gilot first encountered Picasso in May 1943 over a bowl of cherries during the Occupation of Paris. Picasso associated Gilot with springtime and often depicted her as a blooming flower, such as in La Femme-Fleur (1946). Their decade-long relationship represented an era of immense change. As Europe emerged from the Second World War, Picasso and Gilot had two children together, Claude and Paloma. Moving from Paris to a permanent residence in Vallauris, Picasso experienced a gentle transformation in his art amid the momentary domestic bliss he felt. The period was also marked by the artist’s new experiments in prints and ceramics.

Jacqueline Roque

Jacqueline Roque first entered Picasso’s life in the summer of 1952. Recently divorced with a young daughter, Roque had taken a job as a sales assistant at the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris, where Picasso frequently worked. From 1954 onwards, she was a loyal and unfailing presence in the artist’s life and work. While it has been noted that Picasso painted Roque more frequently than any of his previous partners, she rarely modelled for him in a formal sense.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Nu couché, 1969. Oil stick and coloured wax crayons on paper. 19¾ x 25⅞ in (50.2 x 65.5 cm). Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. Offered in A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection Part I on 17 May 2023 at Christie's in New York

According to Gilot, Picasso had always wanted to test himself against Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), and Jacqueline with her raven-black hair, bold profile and short stature proved to be the perfect muse. As Susan Grace Galassi has suggested of Picasso’s treatment of Jacqueline, the resulting Les femmes d’Alger series was ‘a means of announcing Jacqueline’s primacy in his “harem.”’ Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) achieved a world auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s New York for $179,365,000 in 2015.

Who were Picasso’s key friends and collaborators?

Gertrude and Leo Stein

American expatriates Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and quickly began acquiring paintings from the leading avant-garde artists of the day, including Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Picasso and Henri Matisse. Every Saturday, the Steins held a salon attended by their creative cohort, which also included Apollinaire, Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin, and later Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Soon, Gertrude would come to see Picasso as a kindred soul — and her own fractured poetry as the literary equivalent to his faceted Cubist canvases. The painting that Picasso created of Stein between 1905-6 emerged as a foreshadowing of Cubism and a reflection of his recent encounter with Iberian sculpture.

Henri Matisse

Since meeting in 1906, Picasso and Henri Matisse were struck by the one another’s genius. Though as Matisse described to Gertrude Stein they were, ‘as different as the north pole is from the south pole.’ Regardless, the two artists remained keenly aware of each other’s work. Their artistic rivalry and friendship fuelled their individual practices. ‘Only one person has the right to criticise me,’ said Matisse. ‘It's Picasso.’ The death of the great Fauve in 1954 left Picasso feeling isolated.

Georges Braque

The French painter Georges Braque first visited Picasso’s studio in 1907. The two became close friends, collaborators and rivals and over the next few years, they forged a daring and entirely new mode of representation: Cubism. ‘The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore,’ said Braque. ‘It was like being roped together on a mountain.’ Their work became so closely aligned during these years of intense collaboration that it was often hard to tell their canvases apart.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

In 1907, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler met Picasso in the artist’s Montmartre studio. There the German-born art dealer first laid eyes on the largest canvas Picasso had attempted to date, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Kahnweiler was awestruck with the realisation that the whole tradition of art had, in that moment, been overturned. The following year, Kahnweiler signed Picasso to his gallery. Soon thereafter, the dealer had exclusivity agreements with Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger. Through his choice of which artists to foster, and which to reject, Kahnweiler defined the canon of Cubism and worked quickly to promote his artists internationally.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Buste de jeune fille (Paloma), 1951. Oil and ripolin on canvas. 21½ x 13 in (54.6 x 33 cm). Estimate: $1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 13 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Christian Zervos

Christian Zervos is indispensable when it comes to our knowledge and understanding of Picasso’s art. In the 1930s the art critic and publisher began cataloguing Picasso’s work — a project that would occupy him for the rest of his life. For over four decades, Zervos worked with Picasso on a 33-volume publication titled Pablo Picasso par Christian Zervos, or simply ‘Zervos.’ In total, Picasso’s catalogue raisonné lists more than 16,000 paintings and drawings from throughout his career. An essential reference book, ‘Zervos’ has long been essential to both specialists and scholars alike.

What historical events influenced Picasso?

The First World War

The shifting cultural climate of Paris during World War I had a profound impact on Picasso and his art. During these years, he began to work between two distinctive artistic styles in his painting, alternating between a late synthetic cubist vocabulary and a figurative, classically inspired language. Drawing on a diverse range of art historical sources, from Ancient Greek statuary to the frescoes of Pompeii, as well as the art of French masters such as Nicolas Poussin and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Picasso forged a novel style at once firmly rooted in the past and thoroughly modern. Picasso’s embrace of Neo-Classicism followed wider artistic trends sweeping across Europe during this period, known as le rappel à l’ordre, or the ‘Return to Order.’

The Spanish Civil War

Regarded by some as the most powerful anti-war painting in history, Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a testimony to the horror of the Spanish Civil War and a warning of what was to come in the Second World War. While the painting was motivated by the Nazi bombing of civilians at Guernica, the resulting picture is a rallying cry against the terrors of war. Painted for the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris, Guernica was intended to be owned and displayed within the Republic. However, upon the outbreak of WWII, Picasso loaned the painting to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, for safekeeping. In 1958, the MoMA loan was extended until such a time that democracy had been restored in Spain. Guernica returned home in 1981, where it is on view at the Reina Sofía, Madrid.

The Second World War

In June 1940, less than a year into the Second World War, the Germans occupied much of France, while the remainder came under Vichy rule. Initially, Picasso and his lover, Dora Maar, fled to a rented apartment in Royan. However, Royan soon came under the control of Hitler’s troops. Reluctant to leave his adopted homeland and flee to America, Picasso made the risky decision to live in Paris for the rest of the Occupation. Though his art had been regarded as degenerate by the Nazi regime, and Guernica had become a symbol of defiance against fascism, Picasso remained largely free from persecution.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Bougie et Masque, 1943. Oil on canvas. 13 x 21¾ in (33 x 55.2 cm). Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 11 May 2023 at Christie's in New York

During WWII, Picasso continued to paint feverishly, working largely on still-lifes featuring ordinary domestic items found around his apartment and portraits of his loved ones. He created sculptures from the limited wartime resources and even took up poetry. Of his wartime paintings he stated, ‘I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war’s influence. Myself, I do not know.’

What other media did Picasso explore?

Printmaking

While Picasso is most known as a painter and sculptor, he explored printmaking throughout his life. His earliest known print was made in 1899 while he was still a teenager, and he continued to make prints until the age of 90. In total, Picasso produced some 2,400 prints in a wide variety of techniques — most notably etching, lithography and linocut. The artist would often work out ideas simultaneously in painting and print. This relationship is evident in La femme qui pleure, I (1937) and Femme en pleurs (1936-39).

Picasso's Le repas frugal set the world record for a Picasso print when it achieved £6,014,500 at Christie’s London in 2022.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Le repas frugal, 1904. Etching and scraper, on laid Arches paper. 23 x 18¼ in (58.4 x 46.5 cm). Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 11 May 2023 at Christie's in New York

Ceramics

In 1946, Picasso was introduced to Georges and Suzanne Ramié, who owned the Madoura pottery studio in Vallauris, France. Picasso designed 633 different ceramic editions between 1947 and 1971, with a number of variants and unique pieces resulting from these initial works. While Picasso created an aesthetic that fused painting and sculpture, the Ramiés taught him various techniques to aid his distinct style. Picasso and the Ramiés would remain friends and creative partners for the remainder of the artist’s life. Indeed, the Madoura studio in Vallauris became such an important part of Picasso’s life that he would meet his last great love, Jacqueline, there in the summer of 1952.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Pichet têtes, Conceived in 1953 and executed in an edition of 500. White earthenware ceramic pitcher with black oxide and white glaze. Height: 5½ in (13.9 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 13 May 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Why is Picasso’s legacy so enduring?

Picasso passed away on 8 April 1973 in Mougins, France — leaving behind a lasting legacy. He explored many styles, from his Blue and Rose Periods to Cubism, Neoclassicism, Surrealism, realism, and abstraction. He was a pioneer who in constantly reinvigorating his own work, changed the face of art forever.

‘Picasso is the issue, Picasso is the one to beat, Picasso is the fastest gun in the west, the one every budding gunfighter has to beat to the draw in order to prove himself,’ wrote David Sylvester in the introduction to his 1996 book, About Modern Art. So profound is Picasso’s legacy that to this day artists strive to ‘beat’ or at least emulate him. Roy Lichtenstein, who made his own series after Picasso, noted: ‘A Picasso has become a kind of popular object, one has the feeling that there should be a reproduction of Picasso in every home.’ Jasper Johns, Martin Kippenberger, and, of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat all famously paid homage to Picasso in their art.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content