picasso, the pipes of pan, 1923


The Pipes of Pan is an oil painting of two classical figures done by Pablo Picasso during his neoclassical period in 1923. It is often regarded as his most important painting of this period. The upheaval of World War I led to a “return to order” in Europe which was a part of a reaction “against the excesses and violent originalities of prewar movements such as cubism, expressionism and primitivism.”[1] Picasso began participating in this return to order by condensing and simplifying his style. His subject matter became more classical as he started painting “timeless and traditional themes derived from antiquity.”[2] Picasso’s 1917 visit to Italy,  during which he visited Pompeii and the museums of classical art in Naples and Rome, was the “immediate stimulus” for these subjects.[3] The Pipes of Pan, which is now in the Musée Picasso in Paris, depicts two Greek youths in a setting which is clearly Mediterranean with its sunlit bright blue background.[4] Picasso’s return to order, however, is questionable in this painting. Despite the classical nature of this painting there is a disconnect between the subject and some of the ways in which it is portrayed.


As another one of Picasso’s “monumental nudes” that is reminiscent of antiquity, The Pipes of Pan is a very large oil painting on canvas. The influence of sculpture of the Hellenistic style can be seen in the stylized noses and eyes of these figures, which seem to have been modeled using a formula.[5] Even though the these almost naked classical figures evoke the Greek appreciation of the body, the overall effect of the painting is not very classical, as these figures, with over simplified poses, look leaden with heavy hands and feet. This goes against the classical notion of grace. These figures do not have ideal muscular male bodies even though they have idealized faces. Rather, they are narrow chested and somewhat awkward looking.

The figures in this painting are participating in a very classical activity. One of them is playing a classical musical instrument. They are “holding the pipes associated not only with Pan himself, but with the whole pastoral life of the ancient world.”[6] They even have calm and stylized poses. This calm stillness and grand nobility was an integral part of classical art but these figures appear unnaturally still. These are not the heroic figures of action but frozen and almost look immovable due to their blocky bodies.

Picasso has used a classical looking palette in The Pipes of Pan. The bodies of the two youths are tan and that is contrasted by the brilliant blue in the background. There are even terra-cotta buildings present in this work. This is a sun-filled composition which looks like Greece. Despite this classical palette, the painting lacks the perfectly finished quality of classical paintings. The background seems oversimplified and unfinished due to the lack of any details. Unlike classical paintings, there is also a presence of ambiguity in this painting as it is hard to decipher what the blue in the background represents.

Despite several classical characteristics, the classicism of The Pipes of Pan is subverted by Picasso through subtle techniques. It is a painting of sculpturesque figures with boldly simplified forms. It is composed symmetrically and has a Mediterranean ambience which reminds the viewer of Greek and Roman antiquity. There is, however, a disconnect between the classical looking subjects of the painting and the untraditional way in which they are painted, making it one of the paintings most highly esteemed by Picasso himself.[7]

















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

Blunt, Anthony. “Picasso’s Classical Period (1917-25).” The Burlington Magazine 110, no. 781     (1968): 187-191.

Cowling, Elizabeth, Jennifer Mundy. On classic ground : Picasso, Léger, de Chirico, and the        new classicism, 1910-1930. London : Tate Gallery, 1990.

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



[1] Alfred H. Barr, Picasso Fifty Years of His Art (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 115.

[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), 43.

[4] Anthony Blunt, “Picasso’s Classical Period (1917-25),” The Burlington Magazine 110, no. 781 (1968): 188.

[5] Barr, Picasso Fifty Years of His Art, 118.

[6] Blunt, “Picasso’s Classical Period,” The Burlington Magazine 110, no. 781 (1968): 188.

[7] Barr, Picasso Fifty years of his Art, 127.

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