On June 24, 1901, the first major exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s artwork opens at a gallery on Paris’ rue Lafitte, a street known for its prestigious art galleries. The precocious 19-year-old Spaniard was at the time a relative unknown outside Barcelona, but he had already produced hundreds of paintings. The 75 works displayed at Picasso’s first Paris exhibition offered moody, representational paintings by a young artist with obvious talent.
Pablo Picasso, widely acknowledged as the dominant figure in 20th-century art, was born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881. His father was a professor of drawing and bred Picasso for a career in academic art. He had his first exhibit at age 13 and later quit art school so he could experiment full-time with modern art styles. He went to Paris for the first time in 1900, and in 1901 he returned with 100 of his paintings, aiming to win an exhibition. He was introduced to Ambroise Vollard, a dealer who had sponsored Paul Cezanne, and Vollard immediately agreed to a show at his gallery after seeing the paintings. From street scenes to landscapes, prostitutes to society ladies, Picasso’s subjects were diverse, and the young artist received a favorable review from the few Paris art critics who saw the show. He stayed in Paris for the rest of the year and later returned to Paris to settle permanently.
The work of Picasso, which comprises more than 50,000 paintings, drawings, engravings, sculptures, and ceramics produced over 80 years, is described in a series of overlapping periods. His first notable period–the “blue period”–began shortly after his first Paris exhibit. In works such as The Old Guitarist (1903), Picasso painted in blue tones to evoke the melancholy world of the poor. The blue period was followed by the “rose period,” in which he often depicted circus scenes, and then by Picasso’s early work in sculpture. In 1907, Picasso painted the groundbreaking work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which, with its fragmented and distorted representation of the human form, broke from previous European art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon demonstrated the influence on Picasso of both African mask art and Paul Cezanne and is seen as a forerunner of the Cubist movement founded by Picasso and the French painter Georges Braque in 1909.
In Cubism, which is divided in two phases, analytical and synthetic, Picasso and Braque established the modern principle that artwork need not represent reality to have artistic value. Major Cubist works by Picasso included his costumes and sets for Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1917) and The Three Musicians (1921). Picasso and Braque’s Cubist experiments also resulted in the invention of several new artistic techniques, including collage.
After Cubism, Picasso explored classical and Mediterranean themes, and images of violence and anguish increasingly appeared in his work. In 1937, this trend culminated in the masterpiece Guernica, a monumental work that evoked the horror and suffering endured by the Basque town of Guernica when it was destroyed by German war planes during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation but was fervently opposed to fascism and after the war joined the French Communist Party.
Picasso’s work after World War II is less studied than his earlier creations, but he continued to work feverishly and enjoyed commercial and critical success. He produced fantastical works, experimented with ceramics, and painted variations on the works of other masters in the history of art. Known for his intense gaze and domineering personality, he had a series of intense and overlapping love affairs in his lifetime. He continued to produce art with undiminished force until his death in 1973 at the age of 91.