Pablo Picasso: a style guide
In celebration of the Spanish master's 140th birthday, Christie’s delves into each of the artist’s defining styles. Featuring works from the 20th/21st Century sales
Picasso was 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. One of history’s most influential artists, Picasso
devoted his life to art for nearly 80 years. His extensive output includes over 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, theater 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 to his impassioned love affairs, and the socio-political climate of Europe. Resultantly, 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 Century Evening Sale on 11 November 2021, and the Impressionist and Modern Day and Works on Paper Sales on 13 November 2021.
Blue Period (c. 1901-04)
Emerging from a time of immense hardship in the artist’s life, Picasso’s Blue Period lasted from 1901-04. Central to the onset of the Blue Period was the suicide of Picasso’s close friend and fellow artist, Carles Casagemas. ‘It was thinking about Casagemas's death that started me painting in blue,’ Picasso explained. At only 21 years old, 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 so heavily weighed on him during these years.
Rose Period (c. 1904-06)
Having emerged from the Blue Period, Picasso’s Rose Period began once the artist had fully settled in Montmartre and was living at the Bateau-Lavoir among other bohemian artists and writers. While the Blue Period was characterized by loneliness and grief, Picasso’s Rose Period possesses a haunting poetry woven amongst 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 bohemian lifestyle Paris provided.
Later examples from the Rose Period, such as the painting that Picasso created of writer and patron Gertrude Stein between 1905-6, signal the emergence of Cubism and demonstrate an early interest in Iberian sculpture within the artist’s work.
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 realization that the whole tradition of art had, in that moment, been overturned. Though not a Cubist painting in its truest sense, Les Demoiselles sparked 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. Criticized for their paintings of ‘little cubes,’ they broke down traditional artistic motifs into geometrical components that often strove to capture their subjects from multiple angles at once.
Cubism can be categorized into Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. With Analytical Cubism (1907-12), Picasso and his contemporaries dissected their subjects viewpoint-by-viewpoint, resulting in a fragmented series of interwoven planes. Most often, Analytical Cubism relied on a muted colour palette of greys and ochres to focus the viewers on structure and form. Synthetic Cubism (1912-14), on the other hand, generally incorporated simpler shapes, brighter colours, and the inclusion of found collage elements.
Neoclassism (c. 1917-25)
During the First World War, Picasso began working simultaneously in both his later Synthetic Cubist style, and in a newer and more classical mode of figuration, altering 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’ — a summoning a revival of the arts of antiquity and the classical traditions. It was then that Picasso shifted even more into his Neoclassical style.
The influences on Picasso’s Neoclassical 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. Likewise, Picasso’s first wife — the Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova — not only had physical features that leant well to his new style, but also a necessary poise and grace to fully capture the artist’s Greco-Roman influences on canvas. The result was a series of elegantly moulded scenes filled with classically dressed voluptuous goddesses, and references to classical literature and a more mythic past.
Surrealism (c. 1920-30)
During the 1920s Surrealism became the prevailing movement of the avant-garde. Though Picasso maintained his independence from André Breton’s circle, the Spaniard’s work took on a psychological power that aligned with his Surrealist contemporaries. His personal life was fraught with turbulence as he navigated between his impassioned love affair with his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse, and a growing animosity toward 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. Though 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, Picasso was practically confined to his rue des Grands Augustins studio for the remainder of the war. It was there that he began to feverishly paint 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 wartime resource 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. 1946-1962)
In 1946, Picasso began a new relationship with the young artist, Françoise Gilot. Often depicting Gilot as a blooming flower, her presence in Picasso’s life ushered in a period of immense change and renewal. While Europe was recovering from the Second World War, Picasso was also experiencing the joys of a new partner and the birth of two children. Together they moved from Paris to Vallauris, in the south of France, where Picasso’s paintings underwent a gentler transformation that coincided with an 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, Jaqueline Roque. From 1954 onwards, Jaqueline was to be a loyal and unfailing presence in Picasso’s life.
1954 also marked the passing of the Henri Matisse. Throughout their artistic careers, Picasso and Matisse were great rivals and friends. The death of Matisse left Picasso feeling isolated. Without any living peers to turn to, Picasso turned his eye to the artists of the past, including Eugène Delacroix, Diego Velázquez, Édouard Manet, and Poussin. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Picasso reimagined and recreated a selection of art historical masterpieces — often featuring his new muse, Jacqueline. By directly engaging with these masters, Picasso was not only measuring himself against their achievements, but also assessing his position within this esteemed lineage of great European painters.
Late Paintings (c. 1963-1973)
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 completely immerse himself in his work, painting for hours each day without disturbance.
Throughout the 1960s, Picasso had entered a dialogue with the art of Rembrandt. Like Picasso, Rembrandt enjoyed a long career, and often inserted himself into various guises within his work. It was also during this time that Picasso, recovering from surgery, re-read many classic works of literature, including Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Resultantly, the artist began to explore the subject of the musketeer 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.