On this day in 1901, upstart Pablo Picasso commands the first of countless showings of his work on Paris’ famous Rue Lafitte, a street known for its prestigious galleries. The Cassius 19-year-old Spaniard was a relative unknown outside Barcelona, but had already produced hundreds of paintings.
The 75 paintings, largely of his “Blue Period,” ranged from moody portraits to representational works featuring landscapes, prostitutes, and society ladies, and displayed undeniable talent. In the thrall of Paris, which would hold him from his first taste through his entire life, Picasso returned to the city of light with 100 paintings in hand, hoping to land a show. He was introduced to Ambroise Vollard, the same dealer who sponsored the works of Cezanne and other notable artists, and Vollard immediately secured a spot for Picasso at a gallery on the toney Rue Laffitte.
From middle class origins with a patina of nobility, Picasso was baptized Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, a series of names honoring various saints and relatives in the town of his birth, Malaga, Spain. Picasso’s father was a painter who specialized in naturalistic depictions of birds and other game, and for most of his life he worked as a professor of art and a curator.
Picasso showed a passion and a skill for drawing from an early age; according to his mother Maria, his first words were “piz, piz”, a shortening of lápiz, the Spanish word for “pencil.” From the age of seven, Picasso received formal artistic training from his father in figure drawing and oil painting. Showing continual progress as the family moved from Malaga to A Coruna to Barcelona, Picasso’s father and uncle elected to send the young artist to Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain’s foremost art school.
At age 16, Picasso set off for the first time on his own, but he eschewed formal instruction and quit his classes soon after enrollment. Madrid held many other attractions; The Prado housed paintings by Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Francisco Zurbarán. Picasso especially admired the works of El Greco, and elements such as his elongated limbs, brilliant colors, and mystical visages are echoed in Picasso’s later work.
As we catch up with Picasso on his first stay in Paris, he had already painted through his realism phase, demonstrating a turn to a Symbolist influence. Living in a small apartment with journalist and poet Max Jacob, who helped Picasso learn the language and its literature, Max would sleep at night, while Picasso worked through the night and slept most days. In those times of severe poverty, cold, and desperation, much of Picasso’s work was burned as fuel to heat their flat, and such privation influenced the artist’s far-left-wing politics all his life.
Returning to Madrid, Picasso began the works which would introduce his Blue Period, and much of the rest is, as they say, art history. From the Rose Period, through Primitivism, Cubism, Neo-classicism and Surrealism, Guernica to the Chicago Picasso, the man’s painting, sculpture, intense politics and legendary libido kept him relevant up through his death at 91.
Remarking on Picasso’s legacy, art critic Robert Hughes wrote “To say that Pablo Picasso dominated Western art in the 20th century is, by now, the merest commonplace . . . No painter or sculptor, not even Michelangelo, had been as famous as this in his own lifetime . . . the Spaniard was the last great beneficiary of the belief that the language of painting and sculpture really mattered to people other than their devotees.”
And here our lesson on meteoric talent, love, longing and lust endeth.