Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) started to paint when he was eight years old. Like many children he would make drawings, but these were very different to today's children's drawings. According to psychology studies, by nature its not a child's intention to accurately depict a natural object and today children are left to draw freely. When Picasso was young, children would be expected to try to draw as closely to nature as possible, just like mature artists would draw and paint, in the age preceding abstract art. From the age of five on, Pablo would get drawing lessons at school, in Malaga. Children were taught to make drawings based on simple geometric forms, to which more detail was added until an accurate image of the subject resulted. This highly systematic approach to art would develop Picasso's remarkable sense of space and geometry and lay a foundation for the ease with which he would later be able to characterize an object with a single line.
As Picasso's father was an art teacher, he would take full control of Pablo's education in art. He gave him lessons and sent him to schools where he was working as a teacher himself. As such, Picasso's father was ubiquitous in Pablo's life, both at home and in school. Remarkably, in his first two major paintings, The First Communion (1896) and Science and Charity (1897), Pablo includes the (rather uninspired) portrait of his father.
As an artist, Pablo's father would specialize in painting animals, the least valued genre in his time. The most valued genres were history pieces (paintings that would depict scenes from popular history), as well as portraitism and under the influence of his father, Pablo Picasso would concentrate on these subjects. Pablo's father would even use his influence with local newspapers to promote his son's work, as well as with jury members of art contests, in which Pablo participated.
In 1891 Picasso's father got a new job at the art school Instituto da Guarda in La Coruna, to where the family moved and in 1892 Pablo joined his father at the Instituto da Guarda as a student. For three years Pablo would enjoy a classical art education which started with the copying of basic forms. The use of geometric forms was used to create a simplified form of the natural object and by using that basis, more detail was added in several highly systematic stages.
In 1895 his father was appointed at the art academy La Lonja in Barcelona, where again he was joined by Pablo. Picasso's father promoted Pablo's independence by renting him a studio in Barcelona.
With the financial aid of his uncles, Pablo goes to study in Madrid at the end of 1897. In La Coruna and Malaga Pablo had already received a thorough education and because Madrid had nothing new to offer him, he decided to quit mid-1898.
Pablo Picasso's father, Don Josť, descended from an old, wealthy family from the provence Léon (North-West of Spain) and his mother, Doña Maria was from Andalusia and of Arabic descent. Pablo had two younger sisters: Dolorès, or Lola (1884 - 1958) and Concepción (1887 - 1891), called Conchita, the latter died at the age of four. Pablo would begin to sign his artworks with Pablo Ruiz (after his father), but from 1900 on he would use his mother's last name: Picasso.
As the myth goes, Don José was so impressed with the ability of the young Pablo that in 1894 he gave his painting gear to Pablo and would never paint again himself. The myth is so persistent that it's wearth mentioning, but actually Don Josť would continue to paint until his death.
Picasso's relationship with his parents became strained when he quit his studies, and neither would they forgive him for walking over the avant-garde camp.
Picasso dropped out of school in Madrid not be because he thought he didn't have anything to learn anymore, but because the teachers in Madrid couldn't help him solve the technical problems he had. It was the young Picasso's aim to become a classical painter, like Vélasques or Rembrandt, but no matter how good he was for a sixteen year old, he couldn't match the old masters.
Composition was a weak point of his and would always remain so. For a genius, his natural ability to arrange the details of a painting such that they fitted into, and contributed to, the painting as a whole, was fairly limited. That's one reason why Picasso never produced a "grand opus", an extraordinary masterpiece that stands out above everything else; to appreciate Picasso as the master he was, one has to look at his oeuvre as a whole.
His critical thinking and unique power to analyze art was showing already at the age of sixteen when he realized that he would not progress in Madrid. His decision to quit his studies resulted in a severe crisis for the young Picasso, whose education had always been guided, and his art nurtured, by his father. He became severely ill with scarlet fever, spent fourty days in quarantine and then, from summer 1898 to spring 1899, he would stay with Manuel Pallarès in Horta de Ebro.
In 1896 Picasso's painting The First Communion had been included in a large exhibition in Barcelona, that served to present contemporary Catalan art (Catalan refers to Catalonia, the Spanish provence that has Barcelona as it's capital). This was an honor for the fifteen year old Picasso, even though he didn't win a prize. Then, with his painting Science and Charity, Picasso participated in a prestigious exhibition in Madrid. Even though these exhibitions were partly due to his father's connections, they made the young Picasso a known and recognized artist in Spain. This would enable Picasso to declare his independence and start his career, not even seventeen years old.
Science and Charity, 1896
Due to the success of The First Communion and Science and Charity, Picasso would have been faced with the challenge of living up to expections. Realizing that Madrid's Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the center of Spanish classicism, could not help him to progress, he moved back to Barcelona, which stood for avant-garde and innovation. From Picasso's point of view this changing of sides, from traditionalism to avant-garde, was not a deliberate choice. He would have preferred to continue his education in Munich (then a center of academic traditionalism) over moving to Paris. For the young Picasso Paris stood for "modern nonsense such as pointillism", as he would say. His return to Barcelona was a matter of convenience, as he had connections neither in Munich nor Paris, but he would soon be immersed in Barcelona's avant-garde artistic scene. There, among other things, he would be exposed to the wondrous architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
Today architecture is a matter of politics, if anything. Local politicians decide who gets to design public buildings and it would be wrong to suspect the average politician of having matters like art or aesthetics high on his or her agenda. It is therefore all the more remarkable that a man like Gaudi would get a chance as an architect, a thing which is probably only possible in Barcelona. And so Picasso was exposed to Gaudi's world of endless imagination, which in this author's opinion, would lay a basis for the vitality of the Picasso Style, as it came to be, and the transition of "Picasso the traditionalist" into "Picasso the Great Innovator". The organic forms, which we now associate Picasso with, were due to Gaudi.
Of course there was more going on in Barcelona than just Gaudi. Picasso would frequent the café "Els Quatre Gats" (the four cats), which was a meeting place for avant-garde artists. There he befriended artists which would regularly visit Paris to work, an example which Picasso followed. Between 1900 and 1904 (when he finally settled down in Paris), he would commute between Barcelona and Paris, together with his friends from Els Quatre Gats.
At the turn of the 19th century, Paris was the world's center of avant-garde art, and Picasso was becoming an avant-garde artist.
While still in Barcelona, he started his career with illustrating for several magazines and exhibiting his drawings at Els Quatre Gats.
With the aim of introducing contemporary art to Madrid, he co-founded an art magazine called Arte Joven (young art), together with author Francesco de Asis Soler, whose affluent family financed the project. When the magazine's lack of success became apparent (after five editions), Picasso would set his sights on Paris from there on.
Between 1899 and 1900, Picasso's style changed radically, from his previous, very dry style (last seen in paintings like Portrait of Josep Cardona and The closed Window, both 1899) to a particularly romantic style.
From there on, the Picasso we know today began to flourish, fully absorbing all the prevailing styles of his time, resulting in artworks that remind of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Dongen in particular. Already as a teenager, Picasso had the technique to appropriate any style, and the insight to know which styles were important.
In 1900 Picasso got his first studio in Montmarte, Paris, together with his friend and artist Carlos Casagemas, whom he had met in Barcelona. What an impact the French metropole had on the impressionable young Picasso is clearly seen in paintings produced in his first two years in Paris. In 1900 Picasso would apply a technique of oil painting that is somewhat blurred and reminds of soft pastels. His fascination with the world of entertainment, and the Paris night life in particular, is obvious in "Dancer in Blue". The blurred technique of painting contributes to the illusion of movement, in this painting.
Picasso had already become familiar with the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec while in Barcelona, which can be clearly seen in Picasso's design of Els Quatre Gats' menu (see above-right). The line is "Lautrec-esque" and even the colors are very similar to that of Lautrec's famous poster design "Le Divan Japonais".
Like the young Picasso, Lautrec was an avid participant and painter of the Paris nightlife, inspiring Picasso to the painting "Le Moulin Galette", which in style is a homage to Lautrec, who had also painted the Parisian establishment called Le Moulin Galette.
In 1901 Picasso dropped his blurred painting technique in favor of a technique which is known as divisionism. Signac had introduced divisionism to the impressionists in the form of pointillism, which resulted in paintings consisting of small dots (brush tips) of pure color.
Van Gogh introduced a kind of divisionism in which an image would be decomposed into course brush strokes of pure color, such that each brush stroke would have it's own character. Eventually this approach would result in a style called expressionism, in which Picasso experimented in 1901 (before the term expressionism would actually have been coined).
In 1900 and 1901 Picasso began to paint circus artists. The social-political meaning of this is elaborated on, on this site's rose period pages, but for now we note that painting the margins of society was a way for Picasso to break with traditional art, in which the upper-middle classes or high society were expected to be the subject.
When, at 16, the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts failed to improve his standards, and continuing his education in Munich wasn't an option, the young Picasso reached a dead end. In modern art he would find a way to use his strengths: his imagination, sense of poetry and his ability to spot artistic innovations and incorporate them into his work. When he spent most of his time in Paris, between 1900 and 1904, he had some difficult years without earning enough from his art, but there was no turning back: Picasso "was the boy-genius who had grown disinterested in classical art".
This concludes the first part of this Picasso biography, 1881 - 1901. The biography continues with Picasso's blue period, 1901 - 1904.
Reference: Picasso, by Carsten-Peter Warncke - Ingo F. Walther, Taschen GmbH, ISBN 3-8228-1260-9.