How Pablo Picasso Worked

Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous visual artist of the 20th century.
Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous visual artist of the 20th century.
George Stroud/Getty Images

Everything you can imagine is real.

No other artist in history has been as famous in his own time as Pablo Picasso; at a minimum, tens of millions of people around the world knew the artist's work [source: Time]. And while Picasso's fame began with his art -- he's credited with influencing every major art movement of the 20th century -- it didn't end with it.



Picasso was an attention-grabbing artist and a controversial character: a womanizer, Communist, Stalinist and genius who was both loved and hated, yet almost always at least admired for his innovation and talent. He was reviled by the Nazis but shielded by his own renown during the German occupation of Paris. He even became briefly political, specifically with the painting of "Guernica," which was inspired by the Spanish Civil War.

"Guernica" was painted in 1937, and it's one of his most famous works. In general, though, despite his well-known Communist association, Picasso was not a politically driven artist. Instead, sex, or at least the female form, is the most common subject in his art, seen in works like "Nude Woman" of 1910, "The Dream" from 1932, and the painting that jumpstarted Cubism in 1907, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

Cubism was just one of his contributions to art history and art present, albeit a major one. But there were others. In this article, we'll look at the life and work of Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of all time. We'll see where he came from, how he got his start and how his work evolved, and we'll check out some of the works that earned him a level of fame enjoyed by no other artist before or since.

Picasso's fame radiated outward from Paris, but that's not where his story begins. He was born in Spain, the son of an art teacher.

Picasso Biography

Pablo Picasso's painting "Le Gourmet" was completed in 1901.
Pablo Picasso's painting "Le Gourmet" was completed in 1901.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

The story goes, when Picasso started painting as a child, his artist father took one look at his work, gave his brushes to his son and never painted again.



True or not, the point is that it could be true. Picasso was a gifted artist who had an astonishingly prolific career. Born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, he eventually produced a body of work that included 22,000 creations, not only paintings but also sculptures, mosaics, ceramics and stage designs, before he died in 1973 in Mougins, France [source: Picasso].

Picasso fathered four children with three women. His mistresses were often his muses, the subjects in his works. He was known as a relentless womanizer and a charmer. Late in life he was known as a recluse. But mostly, he was known as an artist, from the very beginning.

Pablo Picasso was born Pablo Ruiz, but he took Picasso, his mother's maiden name, as his public surname. Recognized as a child art prodigy, Picasso went on to study art formally in Barcelona at the age of 14 [source: Guggenheim]. He had his first art show there several years later, and received lackluster reviews for it. But Picasso paid little heed to his critics, moving to Paris soon after and becoming central to the famed Paris art scene of the early 20th century.

His Paris studio hosted the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Henri Matisse, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and, of course, Georges Braque. Picasso's collaboration with Braque produced Cubism (see How Cubism Works).

Some of Picasso greatest works are part of that Cubist period. Cubism, however, was the third of his recognized artistic phases.

Pablo Picasso's Periods

Picasso's work "Family of Saltimbanques" was done in 1905.
Picasso's work "Family of Saltimbanques" was done in 1905.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Are we to paint what's on the face, what's inside the face, or what's behind it?

Phrases like "the Blue Period" and "the Rose Period" have become part of modern cultural awareness. Lots of people familiar with the terms don't know they refer to Picasso's stylistic phases. He began painting practically at birth, but his fame really took off at the start of the 20th century, with the Blue Period.



The Blue Period

Picasso didn't actually call it the Blue Period -- the name instead came later, after reflection on his body of work. It's one of his most popular stages, roughly between 1901 and 1904, and it took place before Picasso moved to Paris. Blue Period works are characterized by a sense of melancholy, blue tones and, often, a focus on the human downtrodden. "Boy with a Pipe" (1905) is a prominent Blue Period work (and the most expensive painting in history when it sold for $104 million at auction in 2004 [source: UPI]). Picasso's 1901 "Self Portrait" also epitomizes the style.

The Rose Period

Self Portrait, 1906

Between 1905 and 1907, Picasso's paintings took on a lighter tone, both in color and subject matter, sometimes depicting circus life. Representative works include "Harlequin Family" and "Family of Saltimbanques," both from 1905, and the 1906 paintings "The Girl with a Goat" and "The Peasants." Picasso's 1906 "Self Portrait" is markedly different from the Blue Period work five years earlier.


In 1907, Picasso ushered in Cubism with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." The painting broke with all artistic tradition in its fragmentation, distortion and two-dimensionality. Other examples of Picasso's Cubist work include "Self Portrait" (1907), the charcoal drawing "Standing Female Nude" (1910) and, later, "The Three Musicians" (1921). Along with Georges Braque and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Juan Gris, Picasso created an artistic revolution between 1907 and 1914, moving from Analytical Cubism to Synthetic Cubism and ultimately affecting the rise of Surrealism, Abstractionism and Pop Art. Cubism remained a presence in the art world until the 1930s or '40s, but its centrality faded by the 1920s.

After Cubism, Picasso went on to embrace more a more Classical style in his paintings, drawing and sculpture, and he continued to produce influential work. His most profound impact on the art world, though, even with the popularity of his Blue and Rose Periods and the notable work he created until his death, will always be in his inception of Cubism.

His Cubist paintings are, at least among his followers, iconic.

Picasso Paintings

"Three Musicians," a 1921 painting by Pablo Picasso, was done in the Cubist style
"Three Musicians," a 1921 painting by Pablo Picasso, was done in the Cubist style
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Give me a museum and I'll fill it.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was a prolific artist who moved through numerous stylistic periods and created works in various media. The range of his art is vast: There are tens of thousands of works to his name, some famous, some not.



Just a few of the representative pieces, reflecting the progression of his artistic viewpoint and aesthetic, include:

"The Barefoot Girl" (1895)

"Self-Portrait" (1896)

"The Absinthe Drinker" (1903)

"The Absinthe Drinker," from the Blue Period, depicts fellow artist Angel Fernandez de Soto, with whom Picasso periodically shared a studio in Barcelona. It is predicted to sell for more than $60 million when it goes up for auction in June 2010 [source: Telegraph].

"The Tragedy" (1903)

From the Blue Period, Picasso painted "The Tragedy" in Barcelona. It is representative of his focus on melancholy, poverty and the sadness of the human condition characteristic of the phase. Close study has revealed that Picasso used the canvas several times: Remnants of at least three other images have been found in the final painting that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. [source: NGA].

"Boy with a Pipe" (1905)

"Two Youths" (1906)

"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907)

The painting typically credited with starting the Cubist movement, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was created in Paris, after Picasso was first exposed to African art, which is credited as influencing this initial work. It is said to depict a brothel scene: Avignon was a Barcelona red light district [source: MOMA].

"Three Women" (1908)

"Woman's Head" (1909)

"Portrait of Ambroise Vollard" (1910)

"Still Life With Chair Caning" (1911-12)

"The Three Musicians" (1921)

"Three Dancers" (1925)

"Nude in an Armchair" (1929)

"Head of a Woman" (1930-31)

"Figures on a Beach" (1931)

"The Dream" (1932)

Picasso completed many portraits and sculptures of his mistress Marie-Thérése Walter, of which "The Dream" is perhaps the most famous. The teenage Walter was Picasso's muse from the late 1920s to the mid-'30s, when the artist was in his 40s [source: Cotter]. The collector who had just sold the work for $135 million famously put his elbow through it in Las Vegas in 2006 [source: The Age].

"Guernica" (1937)

One of Picasso's rare political works, Guernica was a response to an episode in the Spanish Civil War in which Italian and German forces destroyed the Spanish city of Guernica in support of the Spanish Nationalists. The Spanish government commissioned this work by Picasso to be included in the Spanish display in the 1937 Paris World's Fair [source: PBS]. It hangs in Madrid's Museo Reina Sofía.

"Nusch Éluard" (1938)

"Dora Maar" (1941)

"The Charnel House" (1944-45)

"Jacqueline With Crossed Hands" (1954)

"Don Quixote" (1955)

"Jacqueline" (1960)

"Rape of the Sabines" (1963)

"Seated Old Man" (1970-71)

The majority of art historians agree that Picasso's work produced between 1907 and 1937 was the most important, at least in terms of the broader view [source: Time]. In particular, the introductions of distortion in Cubism and of collage in Synthetic Cubism are contributions that have had a deep, far-reaching influence on global art.

In the end, though, perhaps Picasso's most profound legacy is his fame. No other visual artist has been the cultural icon that was, and is, Picasso Ruiz Picasso.

For more information on Picasso, art and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Cotter, Holland. "Picasso in Lust and Ambition." The New York Times. Oct. 23, 2008.
  • Biography: Pablo Picasso. Guggenheim Collection.
  • Pablo Picasso Quotes. Brainy Quote.
  • Picasso's Life. Picasso.
  • Time 100: Pablo Picasso. Time.
  • Vogel, Carol. "Andrew Lloyd Webber's Disputed Picasso Set for Auction." The New York Times. March 17, 2010.