Picasso’s Neoclassical Period

By Shreyansi Agarwal

            Pablo Picasso has widely been regarded as one of the greatest painters of the century and has had a lasting impact on modern art. He created over 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, theatre sets and costumes in his life.[1] These works are products of various styles including, but not limited to, Cubism, Neoclassicism, Surrealism and Expressionism. His career can be broken  into various periods during each of which he practiced one dominant style. One such period is his Neoclassical period which was a part of the “return to order” movement of the time. Like several other artists in Europe, Picasso produced works in a traditional style in this period. Even during his Neoclassical period, however, he switched between Cubism and Classicism easily and the two manners always coexisted in his work.[2] He himself did not see the different styles he used as incompatible. As he simultaneously used both cubist and classical techniques and his return to order is insincere and questionable.

Paolo Ruiz Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in Malaga in Spain and had a thorough academic training at a very young age. His father, an ill paid art teacher, was his first instructor. He briefly studied art in Barcelona and then in the conservative Royal Academy in Madrid but withdrew in 1898 because of boredom caused by the ease with which he was able to master the techniques taught there.[3] A regular at the café Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona, he became closely associated with a group of modern writers and artists and started painting and drawing in the abstracted, symbolist style of Catalan modernista artists.[4] His paintings from 1901 to about 1904, or what is known as his blue period, had a blue tonality and depict themes of poverty, loneliness and despair.[5]

Picasso moved to Paris permanently in 1904 and lived among bohemian writers such as Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. The period from 1904 to 1906 is referred to as his Rose period and is regarded by many as his first classical phase. His work took on classical tendencies and he focused on timeless and traditional themes such as male nudes and women doing their hair. His paintings showed a terra-cotta tonality and the referenced classical Greek sculpture, Ingres and Cezanne.[6] As early as 1907 he was see using both cubist and traditional techniques in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which, although formally abstract, portrays the classical subject of the female nude in stylized poses.[7]

This was followed by Picasso’s cubist period from 1909 to 1912. Although the basic principle of Cubism was revolutionary and involved the fragmentation of objects to create a two dimensional picture, it “retained an instinctive attachment to classical tradition.”[8] Picasso, however much he distorted, never made an arbitrary cut that would leave an object incomplete.[9] Even during his most cubist period he “shared with all great artists a desire to keep in close touch with reality.”[10] This shows that Picasso liked to employ different methods at the same time and his work cannot be restricted to one particular style.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, however, most art critics were hostile towards Cubism. The press made it sound destructive and inherently German in the period during and after World War I.[11] This led to a “return to order” which was a part of a reaction “against the excesses and violent originalities of prewar movements such as cubism, expressionism and primitivism.”[12] In this period several artists in Europe, including Picasso, started producing works in a neoclassical style.

At the outbreak of the war Picasso surprised everyone by creating a series of incredibly realistic drawings of Ambroise Vollard, Max Jacob and other intimates.[13] These pencil portraits followed the precise and technical style of Ingres who was considered a French master. Like Ingres, Picasso focused attention on the bust of the figure with a high degree of detail and shading. A secondary focus was the hands while the background was just a hazy sketch that helped one position the figure in space.  He was appealing to the nationalistic pride by reviving a very recognizable old technique of art and paying homage to Ingres and the French tradition. These faithfully done portraits suggested that he was reverting to a classical style and they are, perhaps, the closest Picasso comes to demonstrating a complete return to the principles of classicism. At the same time, however, he continued his cubist works.

Early in 1917, Picasso accepted Jean Cocteau’s invitation to plan the decor for the ballet Parade in Rome. He accompanied Cocteau to Italy to meet the Ballet Russes and work on his designs. He also visited Pompeii and the museums of classical art in Naples and Rome during this trip and what he saw affected his art, making it more classical.[14] This visit to Italy and then his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova, who belonged to an elite social class, provided Picasso the “immediate stimulus” for the return to painting classical subjects and using classical techniques.[15]

In 1917 he painted a portrait of Olga, Olga Picasso in an Armchair as Ingres had painted a young French girl from a good family. This painting, although done in a classical style with incredible attention to the texture and fabric, is left carefully unfinished. This is the closest Picasso came to declaring a direct relationship with Ingres.[16] Some critics could even link Picasso to Ingres and yet see no significant break from Cubism. One such critic, André Salmon, suggested that Picasso’s interest in Ingres had actually played a role in the initial development of Cubism. According to him “Ingres was so deeply concerned with the development of formal relations that inevitably he was led to distortion: he distorted in order to construct and so showed the way to cubism.”[17] This gives one explanation as to how Cubism and Classicism could so easily co-exist in Picasso’s work .

After the war the number of paintings done by Picasso in a neoclassical style increased. Despite the classical nature of these paintings, however, there was a disconnect between the subjects of these paintings and the ways in which Picasso portrayed them. He identified himself with the past classical styles in ways that are “both burred and ironic.”[18] In Three women by the Spring, for example, he paints women doing a classical activity in a classical palette but these women do not have the ideal body type that arouses our sense of appreciation for the body. They are not graceful classical women but leaden figures with heavy hands and feet. Similarly, in Two Women Running at the Beach, a small panel painted by him in 1922, the bodies of the classical women are heavily distorted. Despite the traditional clothes they appear clumsy and even wild. In Rape, which is a tiny tempera crafted with precision on the theme of a mythical rape, “the distortions are striking and are given powerful sculptural presence.”[19] Picasso subverted the classicism of his paintings using these techniques.

His ability to work simultaneously in cubist and neoclassical styles, which were viewed as antithetical modes, caused much controversy. Picasso himself, however, thought differently. In an interview with Marius de Zayas, Picasso declared, “I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting.”[20] Not only did he see the similarities in the techniques he used but also continued to paint cubist works throughout his neoclassical period. One of his most famous cubist paintings, Three Musicians, was completed during this period. Most of his other paintings from his neoclassical period were also only superficially classical as he simultaneously employed different techniques in these works. This confirms that Picasso’s return to order is only partial and different styles always co-existed in his works.












Barr Jr., Alfred H.. Picasso Fifty Years of His Art. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Cowling, Elizabeth, Jennifer Mundy. On Classic Ground : Picasso, Léger, de Chirico, and the      New Classicism, 1910-1930. London : Tate Gallery, 1990.

Daix, Pierre. Picasso Life and Art. Translated by Olivia Emmet. New York: Harper Collins,           1993.

Galloway, John. Picasso. New York: McGraw Hill, 1969.

Green, Christopher. Cubism and its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art,      1916-1928. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Penrose, Ronald. Picasso His Life and Work. Berkley: University of California Press, 1981.

Picasso, Pablo. “Picasso Speaks.” In Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 214-216. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,      2003.

Voorhies, James. “Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last modified October 2004. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pica/hd_pica.htm.





[1] James Voorhies, “Pablo Picasso (1881–1973),” Met Museum, last modified October 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pica/hd_pica.htm.

[2] Elizabeth Cowling, Tate Gallery, On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism, 1910-1930 (Tate Gallery, 1990), 200.

[3] John Galloway, Picasso (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969), 5.

[4] Cowling and Gallery, On Classic Ground, 200.

[5] James Voorhies, “Pablo Picasso (1881–1973),” Met Museum, last modified October 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pica/hd_pica.htm.

[6] Cowling and Gallery, On Classic Ground, 200.

[7] Ibid., 201.

[8] Roland Penrose, Picasso His Life and Work (Berkley: University of California Press, 1981), 197.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Ibid., 205.

[11] Pierre Daix, Picasso Life and Art (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 156.

[12] Alfred H. Barr, Picasso Fifty years of his Art (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 115.

[13] Galloway, Picasso, 24.

[14] Daix, Picasso Life and Art, 155.

[15] Galloway, Picasso, 43.

[16] Christopher Green, Cubism and Its Enemies: Modern Movements and Reaction in French Art, 1916-1928 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 59.

[17] Green, Cubism and Its Enemies, 59.

[18] Ibid., 59.

[19] Ibid., 62.

[20] Pablo Picasso, “Picasso Speaks,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 216.

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