Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga in southern Spain in 1881, but he moved to Barcelona when he was 14 years old. He was the son of an artist and art teacher, and from early on it was clear that he was destined to be an artist himself. He was accepted into the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona on the strength of his entrance exam despite the fact that he was several years younger than the typical entering student. It was a prestigious beginning to an artistic career that would eventually help to define modern art in the 20th century and make Picasso into an enduring artistic legend.
A poor student in academic areas, Picasso also had little patience for formal artistic education. His attendance at the School of Fine Arts was sporadic because the regimentation of the school’s academic approach didn’t suit him, and in 1897 he left Barcelona to attend the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. He quickly discovered, however, that the academy was not the place for him—in Barcelona, Madrid or anywhere. He left school in 1899 and returned to Barcelona, where he settled into a community of rebellious artists and thinkers, leaving behind his connection to the traditional art world.
Picasso’s famous “Blue Period” spans the years from 1901 to 1904. By the end of 1901, Picasso had left Spain and settled in Paris, and he had also descended into a deep depression. The paintings of these years, with their cool colors and joyless subjects, reflected his state of mind.
In 1904, Picasso’s style changed dramatically, possibly because he was in a relationship with artist Fernance Olivier and had emerged from his depression. Whatever the reason, the color palette of his paintings shifted to a warmer range, with reds and pinks dominating, between 1904 and 1906. This period, his “Rose Period,” is somewhat lesser known than his “Blue Period,” maybe because it serves as a bridge between his earliest paintings and his most revolutionary work.
In 1907, Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a picture that indicates the beginning of one of the most influential movements in art history. The painting is significant not for its subject matter—it depicted prostitutes, a subject that had been a favorite of artists for decades—but for the way it depicted that subject. The painting’s figures were fragmented and deconstructed, abstracted and rearranged in a way that was reminiscent of the work of Paul Cézanne but was, in some ways, more radical.
“Les Demoiselles” was the seed of Cubism, an artistic philosophy that Picasso developed with his friend Georges Braque through the 1910s and into the 1920s. The influence of Cubism was profound, as its ideas about abstraction and representation would pave the way for innovations in modern art throughout the 20th century.
As the 20th century wore on, Picasso began to augment his Cubism with other ideas. After 1920, he revisited the traditional forms that he had rejected in his youth; the period of the early 1920s is considered his “Classical Period,” a relatively little known interlude in which he sprinkled ancient influences into his paintings.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Picasso pulled the fantastical dream imagery of Surrealism into his work. His most famous work of this period, 1937’s “Guernica,” uses symbols—bulls, horses, flames, light bulbs—to represent the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso continued to work well into the 20th century, and he never ceased his attempts to innovate. Always more well known for his painting, he also created sculptures; the 50-foot-tall untitled steel sculpture that was installed in Chicago’s Daley Plaza in 1967 is not only one of Picasso’s most well-known works, it is also a beloved emblem of the city.