Pablo Picasso was one of the best-known and most influential figures of the 20th-century, often hailed as a father of modern art, achieving universal renown and immense fortune for his revolutionary artistic accomplishments. Born in Malaga on October 25th, 1881, he demonstrated extraordinary artistic talent in his early years, painting in a naturalistic manner up until his adolescence. As he entered the first decade of the 20th century, his style changed as he experimented with different theories, techniques, and ideas. The Fauvist works of Henri Matisse inspired him to experiment with more radical styles, which aided in his development of Cubism which he co-founded with French artist Georges Braques. The Cubist Movement challenged the singular perspective, choosing to analyse subjects and break them up, reassembling them in abstract form, depicting the subject from multiple perspectives to represent the subject in a greater context.
He was a prolific painter, but was also a sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and theatre designer. Picasso’s output is often classified in distinct periods due to the defining characteristics of his artworks. The most accepted periods in his work are the Blue Period (1901-04), the Rose Period (1904-06), the African-influenced Period (1907-09), Analytic Cubism (1909-12), and Synthetic Cubism (1912-19), sometimes referred to as the Crystal Period. He also moved through periods of neoclassicism and surrealism in response to events of the early 20th-century.
While Picasso is predominantly known for his stylistic oil paintings, avant-garde sculptures, and even collage work, he also utilised both oil and soft pastels. Picasso helped to pioneer the creation of the professional-grade oil pastel. Whilst coloured ‘oil sticks’ had been in creation since 1925, they tended to be within the remit of amateur artists, students, and children. One day in 1948, Picasso approached Henri Sennelier (grandson of Gustave Sennelier, chemist and colourist who established one of Paris’ most well-known art shops), to manufacture a medium that could be used on any surface, without requiring a special coating. A year later, Henri had formulated a product what he later called ‘oil pastels;’ these sticks of pigments were waxy rather than chalky, and could be used in thick, dense strokes. Picasso was delighted and bought forty each of the forty-eight colours made. Despite this famous association with oil pastels, Picasso was highly fond of soft pastel and used this medium to produce beautiful art throughout his career, in both preparatory and finished works.
An early portrait of Picasso’s mother, María Picasso López, is rendered entirely in soft pastel. Painted in 1896, when Picasso was only thirteen, it demonstrates the technical skill he had already acquired at such an early age. To work with pastel requires a good command of line and colour, both of draughtsmanship and painting, and was a favourite specialty of many portrait painters in 18th-century France. Picasso, who was in full-time training at La Llotja art school in Barcelona, produced the portrait in pastels on paper as an academic exercise in painting from life. He has beautifully captured the restfulness of his mother, as she sits in a state of pensiveness. Her voluminous dark hair forms a contrast with the nuances of her pale flesh tones and the sheer white fabric of her clothes, her pearl earring glinting. Picasso’s application of pastel is masterful; line and colour come together along with soft contouring and range of hues. The picture has a velvety texture that characterises pastels, resulting in a harmonious ensemble that evokes an intimate vision.
At the turn of the century, Picasso was to enter his Blue Period – an artistic chapter which was influenced by the traumatic suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas, following which Picasso experienced deep depression and began to recluse from society. The paintings of this time featured subjects rendered in monochromatic hues of blue and blue green, sometimes warmed by other colours. Picasso was living in Paris at this time, but during a visit to Barcelona in 1901, he produced the large pastel piece, ‘L’Entreinte’ (‘The Embrace’), housed in the Musee de l’Orangerie. Painted on an unusually large scale, it depicts a tender scene of a nude man and woman embracing in a bedroom painted in soft shades of blue and pink. The woman is evidently pregnant, her head buried into the man’s neck, whose head in turn rests upon her shoulder. Whilst we cannot distinguish the faces of these two figures, we are invited to share in their intimacy and the sense of melancholy that emanates from the scene. Picasso had visited a retrospective of Degas’ work in Paris and would have marvelled at the artist’s deft manipulation of pastel and its capacity to convey the softness and warmth of flesh – this painting clearly shows he was inspired by these works. Picasso remarked of ‘L’Entreinte’: “What I want is that my picture should evoke nothing but emotion.” The embrace is a recurrent theme throughout Picasso’s work from 1900 onwards, and this particular image actually belongs to a sequence of drawings of a standing nude couple embracing that culminated in ‘La Vie’, 1903.
As the years progressed, Picasso’s style continued to evolve. Following his Blue Period, he entered his Rose Period, followed by phases of Primitivism and Cubism. By the early 1920s, Picasso had ensconced himself within the neoclassical style, following a trip to Italy in 1917. During this period of upheaval surrounding World War I, many artists found themselves ‘returning to order’, abandoning the extreme avant-garde art that had dominated the years leading up to the war, instead taking inspiration from classical art. Cubism and Futurism, movements which harkened in a new age of dynamism, technology, and machinery, and often celebrated war and violence, were neglected in favour of classical ideals and realism. Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’ was painted 18 years after ‘L’Entreinte’, his change of style clearly visible. The subject is statuesque, evocative of a Roman goddess. The plain, flat features of her face are clearly delineated, perhaps in a nod to Raphael whom Picasso was known to take inspiration from.
This was a study for ‘Three Woman at the Spring,’ a major neoclassical composition painted in oil paint in autumn 1921 in Fontainebleau. Picasso had witnessed the ancient wall paintings in and around Rome and Naples during his trip in 1917 whilst working on Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the likes of which would have encouraged him to paint the large-scale scene and apply the pastel in firm, dense blocks of colour. His muse, however, was his wife Olga Kohklova, whom he had met during his time in Italy. It was her features whom he took inspiration from for the study of a woman’s head. In the final composition, Picasso has moved away from the bold, warm blues he implemented in ‘Head of a Woman,’ and has migrated towards earthy, rich browns instead.
Picasso’s pastel paintings are the pictorial vessels in which he demonstrated his ever-changing artistic styles, which were responses to the drastic changes he witnessed within the first half of the twentieth century, both in political and personal spheres. He masterfully applied soft pastels to capture likeness and delicacy, but also used them to hone his own individual, avant-garde styles. Picasso died on April 8th in 1973 at his home in Mougins, France.
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