Perhaps the most influential artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso had a long, constantly evolving career. Over 79 years, he saw success with everything from painting, sculpting, and ceramics to poetry, stage design, and writing, always experimenting with different styles in each discipline.
In fact, the extent to which Picasso changed his approach, especially in his paintings, is unmatched by almost any other artist. While he’s most widely known for pioneering Cubism along with Georges Braque, he also invented collage, contributed in a major way to Surrealism, and produced graphic works comparable to those of Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya. He even painted in realist, expressionist, primitive, and neoclassical modes, producing a body of work that remains one of the most impressive in the history of art. As Picasso said of his protean output: “Everything you can imagine is real.”
New York City is blessed with a wealth of Picasso holdings, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim Museum, as well as at The Met. Today, The Met’s Picasso holdings comprise 34 paintings, 58 drawings, a dozen sculptures and ceramic plaques, and almost 400 prints. Gertrude Stein started it all when she donated her iconic portrait in 1946. (The rumor goes that she gave it to the Met because she didn’t like the MoMA or its then-director, Alfred H. Barr Jr.)
Over the next 50 years, subsequent, extremely generous donations and bequests from Alfred Stieglitz, Scofield Thayer, Florene M. Schoenborn, Klaus and Dolly Perls, and Jacques and Natasha Gelman helped establish the Met’s Picasso collection as one of the most significant in the world. While the holdings are largely weighted toward his early and neoclassical works, viewers can expect something from every period of his career, starting with some of his first paintings.
When Picasso began painting in 1894, he worked in a realist style, employing lifelike details and colors. This more traditional approach is especially evident in his early portraits of church figures and loved ones. By 1897, however, influenced by the Expressionist Edvard Munch and the Post-Impressionist Toulouse-Lautrec, his work took on more intense and less true-to-life quality.
By 1901, Picasso had altogether abandoned realism. Likely motivated by his close friend’s suicide, he began focusing on cooler, less natural colors and gloomier subject matter, such as people living in poverty or despair. This stretch of time, which lasted until 1904, came to be known as his Blue Period.
Around 1904, Picasso started using warmer colors and happier subjects, though he continued to employ a painterly approach. After moving to the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre in Paris, he dropped his impoverished figures entirely, instead painting harlequins, acrobats, and other performers. These works fall under what is now referred to as his Rose Period.
In the three years following his Rose Period, Picasso found inspiration in Oceanic and African art, depicting everyone from prostitutes to himself with abstracted bodies and mask-like faces. This interest in simplification and fragmentation helped pave the way to his famous Cubist works.
Picasso’s Cubist period can be broken down into two distinct phases. For the first four years, he produced mostly “analytic” pieces, defined by monochromatic palettes and overlapping, geometric fragments. When viewed from a distance, the fragments form figures, which are often visible from multiple angles at once.
Over the following two years, he worked in a more “synthetic” manner, creating simplified but polychromatic canvases similar to collage art. While Picasso had moved on from his Cubist stage by 1914, he continued to experiment with the style until the 1920s.
In 1917, shortly after his first visit to Italy, Picasso returned to figurative painting, using a more neoclassical style inspired by Italian Renaissance art. While the works from this period don’t make a return to the realism of his early art, they mark a major departure from the abstraction of Cubism.
By 1925, Picasso gave up naturalism once again, turning instead toward Surrealism. Featuring dreamy landscapes and twisted figures with jumbled features, the works from this phase are characterized by bright, clashing colors, a skewed sense of perspective, and a contrast between organic and geometric forms.
Picasso continued to paint until his death in 1973, however, his late works can’t be classified by a specific style. Instead, they blend elements of all his past periods, reminding viewers of his immense talent. To quote the artist himself: “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”