Art History 101: Who is that man in the striped sweater?

By Austin Bowes

via Wikipedia
via Wikipedia

Pablo Picasso.

Now here is a name that everyone knows. I have never met someone who doesn’t like Picasso. But why do they like him? I’ve never asked, but I have a feeling that most people couldn’t tell me why – mostly because people don’t really know that much about him; or they are encompassed by a sense of peer pressure in which they feel they must like him or they will be barraged with questions as to why they don’t like Picasso.

I don’t really have an answer as to why I haven’t felt a great sense of connection to Picasso; perhaps because I grew up learning that you must like Picasso instead of learning about him first, who knows.

However, I can tell you about Picasso: about his life and those paintings that –for whatever reason – make people smile.

Picasso was born in 1881 in Málaga, Spain with at least five names (I’m no Spanish expert but if you look him up, there are a lot of names. I’m not sure how many). Anyway, his father was a painter, and he soon followed in his footsteps, studying and painting in Northern Spain, Barcelona, and Madrid. In 1900, he moved to Paris with Max Jacob, a journalist who taught him French. There, they needed to burn their work to keep warm as they were both poor. The next few years, Picasso traveled back and forth between Madrid and Paris. His famous Blue Period began around this time.

Between 1901 and 1904, Picasso produced works that were stylized by their blue-green tints, most influenced by the suicide of a dear friend. The Blue Period frequently focused on subjects such as beggars, drunks, and prostitutes. The most famous of these works is “The Old Guitarist” (1903) which shows a melancholy old man with his skin clinging to his bones, strumming away at a guitar. Picasso suffered from a severe depression during this period. His depression subsided and he moved towards a more joyful and vibrant mood, known as the Rose Period.

With his psychological state improved, Picasso employed pinks (or “rose” in French) and oranges from 1904 to 1906. While the Blue Period had Spanish influence, the Rose Period had French influence. Harlequins encompass this period, as seen with “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905) and “Family of Saltimbanques” (1905). The circus performers’ garb is checkered with color in triangular shapes, bringing the joy back into Picasso’s life.

But most people don’t know from his Blue Period or his Rose Period; they know him from Cubism. Cubism can be traced to Picasso’s “African Period,” a period in which he was influenced by African artwork. Africa was a topic of interest in France during the early 20th century, as the expansion of the French empire interested the public. Exaggerated stories of cannibalism and exotic tales of Africa kingdoms filled the press’ pages and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” drew interest to the people of Africa.

Picasso witnessed African art in Paris and it directly influenced his most famous works, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or “The Young Ladies of Avignon.” Depicted are five young prostitutes in Barcelona with morphological forms similar to El Greco’s “The Opening of the Fifth Seal.” The three women to the left of the work are the Cubist faces we are used to from Picasso; however, the two on the right have faces that remind one of African masks, just as Picasso intends. The painting incorporates Picasso’s proto-Cubist tendencies with the African influence of his time. It is from here we see Picasso break into Cubism, a style which represented form in three-dimensions in the abstract. He and his close friend, Georges Braque, began this movement. In fact, some of their paintings are so similar in style and technique that Picasso and Braque themselves said they could not decipher who had painted what.

There is much that I didn’t get to in Picasso’s life – his childhood, his wives and lovers, his later surrealist period with “Guernica” (1937). I encourage you to look for yourself into his life and find meaning in his work. Picasso helped form the art of the 20th century and change the world for the better. That’s why when you mention his name, someone’s smile will be beaming.

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


2 Comments Add yours

  1. frakn says:

    aw i wanted to much more from this story but captured my interest nonetheless

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