Pablo Picasso: a style guide
As the 50th anniversary of the Spanish master’s death approaches, we delve into each of the styles that defined his long career. Illustrated with works from Christie’s 20th/21st Century and Impressionist and Modern Art sales on 28 and 29 June
Born Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, on 25 October 1881, in Málaga, Spain, Picasso is one of history’s most influential artists. He devoted his life to art for nearly 80 years, producing more than 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, theatre sets and costumes, in a vast range of styles.
Each major period of Picasso’s art was seemingly defined by the events around him, from his personal tragedies and impassioned love affairs to the socio-political upheavals of Europe. As a result, Picasso’s body of art emerges as a timeline of his own experiences.
Here we explore the major styles that defined Picasso’s career — illustrated with works from the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 28 June 2022, and the Impressionist and Modern Art Day and Works on Paper Sale on 29 June.
Blue Period (c. 1901-04)
Emerging from a time of immense hardship in the artist’s life, Picasso’s Blue Period lasted from 1901 to 1904. Central to the onset of the Blue Period was the suicide of his close friend and fellow artist, Carles Casagemas. As Picasso said, ‘It was thinking about Casagemas’s death that started me painting in blue.’
At the age of only 21, the young artist found himself desperately poor and depressed. He restricted his palette to cold, sombre colours that evoked dreamlike mystery and sorrow. Living between Barcelona and Paris, Picasso painted powerful portraits of his friends, as well as the needy, the abandoned and the blind, to explore the themes of human misery and social alienation that weighed upon him so heavily during these years.
Rose Period (c. 1904-06)
Picasso’s Rose Period began once he had fully settled in Montmartre and was living at the Bateau-Lavoir among other bohemian artists and writers. While the Blue Period was characterised by loneliness and grief, the Rose Period possesses a haunting poetry, with a cast of harlequins, acrobats and circus performers depicted in vivid earth tones, pinks, reds, and oranges.
The veil of despair that tinged his earlier period had been lifted. Picasso was happy in his new relationship with Fernande Olivier and was enjoying the lifestyle Paris provided.
Later works from the Rose Period, such as the portrait of writer and patron Gertrude Stein, painted between 1905 and 1906, signal the emergence of Cubism and demonstrate Picasso’s early interest in Iberian sculpture.
Cubism (c. 1907-14)
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. Though not a Cubist painting in its truest sense, Les Demoiselles represented a new pictorial idiom that prompted the start of one of the most influential artistic movements of the 20th century.
Cubism was jointly created by Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. Influenced by the late work of Paul Cézanne, as well as African and Iberian sculptures, Picasso and Braque developed a visual language that rejected the accepted notions of perspective and representation.
Criticised for their paintings of ‘little cubes,’ they broke down traditional artistic motifs into geometrical components, often striving to capture their subjects from multiple angles at once.
Cubism can be categorised into two phases: Analytic and Synthetic. With Analytical Cubism (1907-12), Picasso and his contemporaries dissected their subjects viewpoint-by-viewpoint, resulting in a fragmented series of interwoven planes. Analytical Cubism often relied on a muted colour palette of greys and ochres to emphasise structure and form. Synthetic Cubism (1912-14), on the other hand, generally incorporated simpler shapes, brighter colours, and elements of found collage.
Neoclassicism (c. 1917-25)
During the First World War, Picasso began working in both the Synthetic Cubist style and a newer and more classical mode of figuration, alternating effortlessly between these patently dissimilar means of representation.
Following the end of the war, artists across Europe called for le rappel à l’ordre — the return to order — summoning a revival of the arts of antiquity and classical traditions. It was then that Picasso shifted further into his Neoclassical style.
The influences on Picasso in this period were many. In 1917, he visited Italy for the first time. Enchanted by the classical statuary, ancient ruins and frescos, Picasso returned to Paris, where the influences of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Nicolas Poussin also took hold.
Moreover, Picasso’s first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, whom he married in 1918, had a poise and grace that lent themselves to the artist’s Greco-Roman phase. The result was a series of elegant scenes full of voluptuous, classically dressed goddesses, with references to classical literature and the mythic past.
Picasso once said, ‘If all the ways I have been along were marked in a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.’
Throughout the 1930s, the mythical creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull became his most prominent alter ego, serving as a repository for his desires and anxieties against the backdrop of personal turmoil and the Spanish Civil War. The dual nature of the Minotaur, representing the conflicting impulses of instinct and reason, chimed with the artist.
Arthur Evans’s archaeological excavations at Knossos in Crete coincided with a popular affinity for an idealised Mediterranean Classicism in defiance of Europe’s growing nationalism.
The Minotaur was also a key emblem for the Surrealists. They saw the man/beast blindly stalking its prey through a maze as a manifestation of the subconscious. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson put it, ‘the equation of vision, sexuality and art making… often unlocks the meaning of Picasso’s work’.
Surrealism (c. 1920-30)
During the 1920s, Surrealism became the prevailing movement of the avant-garde. Although Picasso maintained his independence from André Breton’s circle, the Spaniard’s work took on a psychological power that aligned with that of his Surrealist contemporaries.
His personal life was fraught with turbulence as he navigated between his impassioned love affair with his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and a growing animosity towards his wife Olga. As a result of this volatile mix of emotion and influence, Picasso’s Surrealist works stand out as some of his most radical and disturbing evocations of the female form.
War Period (c. 1935-45)
In June 1940, less than a year into the Second World War, the Germans occupied much of France, while the rest of the country came under Vichy rule. Unable to return to his native Spain, Picasso made the risky decision to live in Paris for the remainder of the Occupation. Although his art had been regarded as degenerate by the Nazi regime, and Guernica (1937) had become a symbol of defiance against Fascism, Picasso remained free from persecution.
Unable to travel, he was practically confined to his studio on rue des Grands Augustins for the remainder of the war. There he painted a great number of still lifes and portraits of his wartime love and muse, the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar. He also created sculptures from the limited resources available to him, 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.’
Post-War Years (c. 1946-62)
In 1946, Picasso began a new relationship with the young artist Françoise Gilot. Her presence in Picasso’s life ushered in a period of immense change and renewal, and he often depicted her as a blooming flower. They had two children together and moved from Paris to Vallauris, in the south of France.
There Picasso’s paintings underwent a gentle transformation that coincided with a new inventiveness in prints and ceramics. However, in 1952, while working in the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris, Picasso met his final great love and muse, Jacqueline Roque. From 1954 onwards, she was to be a loyal and unfailing presence in his life.
The year 1954 also marked the passing of Henri Matisse. Throughout their artistic careers, Picasso and Matisse were great rivals and friends, and his death left Picasso feeling isolated.
With no living peers to turn to, Picasso focused on the artists of the past, including Delacroix, Velázquez, Manet and Poussin. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Picasso reimagined and recreated a selection of art historical masterpieces — often featuring Jacqueline.
By directly engaging with these masters, Picasso was measuring his achievements against theirs and assessing his position within the esteemed lineage of great European painters.
Late Paintings (c. 1963-73)
At the beginning of 1963, following his great cycle of art historical reinterpretations, Picasso resolved to seek out new themes, which he hoped would reinvigorate his art. Living in near seclusion with Jacqueline at Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, Picasso was able to immerse himself completely in his work, painting for hours each day without disturbance.
Throughout the 1960s, Picasso engaged in a dialogue with the art of Rembrandt — an artist who, like Picasso, enjoyed a long career and often inserted himself into his work in various guises. In the same period, while recovering from surgery, Picasso re-read many classic works of literature, including Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. As a result, the artist began to depict musketeers clad in 17th-century attire. Nearing old age, Picasso saw the musketeer as a symbol of romance and machismo — an extension of his own persona.