Pablo Picasso: First Visit to Paris, 1900

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Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s immediate motive for visiting Paris in 1900 was probably the Universal Exhibition; his first visits lasted from October to Christmas 1900 and from April to December 1901.

Almost at once his pictures became much brighter in colour and less literary in content, just as Van Gogh’s had done some fourteen years earlier. Sabartés writes of ‘the bright colours which blazed in his mind on discovering the lighting effects of the foot-lights and the coloured spot-lights used in cabaret performances’. This brightness was probably also due to the many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures he was now able to see for the first time otherwise than in black-and-white reproductions or in the pastiches of Casas and Rusiñol.

Many of his works also have Impressionist themes; there are studies of flowers, of streets in Montmartre, of the Boulevard do Clichy and of mothers with their children in public gardens. One may suppose that Picasso at this time was absorbed in digesting the intense new experiences afforded by Paris and its galleries, and we know from Sabartés that on his return to Barcelona he missed them. ‘Naturally we went to the Salón Parés for there was no other exhibition to go to, but it seemed to us shallow when compared with our memories of Paris.’

During Picasso’s early visits to Paris the paintings of the Nabis were much in evidence. But the snug petit bourgeois life which they depicted and their interest in the sensuous surface of the world and in the play of light had comparatively little attraction for Picasso. In a sense they could be called the Mannerists of Impressionism, content as they were to develop and play variations on old themes, while Picasso felt the need for a new art appropriate to the new century.

It is significant that the literary contacts of the Nabis and the world of La Revue Blanche were somewhat archaising and looked back to the nineteenth century, whereas Picasso’s poet friends Jacob, and later Apollinaire and Salmon were more revolutionary and had all learnt something from the violent novelties of Jarry. Picasso was not quite untouched by the work of Bonnard and his friends, and their influence is probably detectable in his treatment of such subjects as race-meetings and bull-fights and perhaps in ‘Le Tub’, but on the whole Picasso did not forget the world he had left behind him and paid more attention to painters of the sordid and disinherited, such as Lautrec, Gauguin and in 1901 Van Gogh.

Lautrec’s well-known influence on Picasso has already been discussed. Reviewers of his exhibition at Vollard’s in June 1901 accused him of imitating this artist and this criticism may be partly responsible for the emergence of a new, more personal style towards the end of 1901. Gauguin had more to offer — a revolt against the tyranny of naturalism in favour of ‘le centre mystérieux de la pensée’, a clear-cut style not too difficult to assimilate and a picturesque life which had made concrete the current aspirations towards savagery and primitivism.

We know from Sabartés that Picasso and his friends discussed Gauguin with excitement, that Picasso owned and drew in Noa Noa, and also that their friend the sculptor Paco Durio had been a friend and disciple of Gauguin and owned several of his paintings and wood-carvings, some from the Brittany period. Although Picasso’s work is more obviously indebted to that of Gauguin in the Blue Period, in the idyllic classical phase of 1905 and in the trend towards the savage and primitive which followed, the heavy outlines of ‘L’Enfant au Pigeon’, ‘Clown’ and ‘Arlequin Accoudé’, all of 1901, have a Gauguinesque quality, as have several drawings of nude women crouched on the ground.

A large Daurmer exhibition was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1901, extending to over 470 items, but this was not Picasso’s first opportunity to see his work. He was represented in the Exposition Centennale of French Art in 1900 by thirty-five works, which included ‘Saltimbanques’, street-singers, laundresses and emigrants. Max Jacob had lithographs by Daumier which he gave to Picasso, and Manyac, Picasso’s first dealer, sold some to Berthe Weill, who was his second.

Picasso sketched a Daumier-like group of drunkards as early as 1900 and the similarity of Picasso’s ‘Les Fugitifs’ to Daurmer’s ‘Les Emigrants’, which was shown at the big exhibition of 1901, is too great to be accidental. Daurmer’s strongly outlined, silhouetted figures, which almost give the effect of stained glass, may have contributed something to Picasso’s style, and many of his subjects such as laundresses, mountebanks, mothers with sick children, spectators in a theatre and beggars occur in Picasso’s work. It is hard to distinguish between Picasso’s debts to Daumier and to Steinlen in his use of these themes, but the influence of the former is undeniable, and Picasso’s tragic clowns and pierrots are likely to have been suggested by Daumier rather than by Cézanne’s ‘Mardi-Gras’.

Picasso has told Roland Penrose that in 1901 the influence of Van Gogh was greater upon him than that of any other painter. This is particularly interesting, since at that time Van Gogh’s letters were practically unknown, his early works, which would have attracted Picasso by their subject-matter, were still in Holland, and even in 1902 Leo Stein, who had been introduced to the works of Cézanne by Berenson, had never heard of Van Gogh. Picasso, however, had probably been introduced to Van Gogh’s art by Nonell and could have seen his works with Bernheim Jeune and Vollard. Both these dealers had tragic self-portraits of Van Gogh which might have provided the stimulus for Picasso’s portrait of himself unshaven.

Some of Picasso’s vigorous close-up portraits of this year, such as that of Gustave Coquiot, and a very un-idealised ‘Femme hue étendue sur un lit’ are rather like Van Gogh, especially in the hatching; the increased feeling of compassion towards the end of the year may also be connected with the Dutch master. Picasso seems to have agreed with Van Gogh that ‘Les gens sont la racine de tout’ and at this time and later in his career he concentrated even more exclusively than the Dutchman on works with human figures to the exclusion of landscape and still life.

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