Pablo Picasso’s Masterful Childhood Paintings: Precocious Works Painted Between the Ages of 8 and 15

It’s hard to imag­ine from this his­tor­i­cal dis­tance how upset­ting Pablo Picasso’s 1907 mod­ernist paint­ing Les Demoi­selles d’Avignon was to Parisian soci­ety at its debut. On its 100th anniver­sary, Guardian crit­ic Jonathan Jones described it as “the rift, the break that divides past and future.” The paint­ing caused an uproar, even among the artist’s peers. It was a moment of cul­ture shock, notes PBS. Its five nude fig­ures, bro­ken into pro­to-cubist planes and angles with faces paint­ed like African masks, met “with almost unan­i­mous shock, dis­taste, and out­rage.”

Hen­ri Matisse, him­self often cred­it­ed with ush­er­ing in mod­ernist paint­ing with his flat­tened fields of col­or, “is angered by the work, which he con­sid­ers a hoax, an attempt to paint the fourth dimen­sion.” Much of the out­rage was pur­port­ed to come from mid­dle-class moral qualms about the painting’s sub­ject, “the sex­u­al free­dom depict­ed in a broth­el.”

This is a lit­tle hard to believe. Nude women in broth­els, “odal­isques,” had long been a favorite sub­ject of some of the most revered Euro­pean painters. But where the women in these paint­ings always appear pas­sive, if not sub­mis­sive, Picas­so’s nudes pose sug­ges­tive­ly and meet the view­ers gaze, active­ly unashamed.

What like­ly most dis­turbed those first view­ers was the per­ceived vio­lence done to tra­di­tion. While we can­not recov­er the ten­der sen­si­bil­i­ties of ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Parisian crit­ics, we can, I think, expe­ri­ence a sim­i­lar kind of shock by look­ing at work Picas­so had done ten years ear­li­er, such as the 1896 First Com­mu­nion, fur­ther up, and 1897 study Sci­ence and Char­i­ty at the top, con­ser­v­a­tive genre paint­ings in an aca­d­e­m­ic style, beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered with exquis­ite skill by a then 15-year-old artist. See an ear­li­er draw­ing, Study for a Tor­so, above, com­plet­ed in 1892 when Picas­so was only 11.

Giv­en his incred­i­ble pre­coc­i­ty, it may seem hard­ly any won­der that Picas­so inno­vat­ed scan­dalous­ly new means of using line, col­or, and com­po­si­tion. He was a prodi­gious mas­ter of tech­nique at an age when many artists are still years away from for­mal study. Where else could his rest­less tal­ent go? He paint­ed a favorite sub­ject in 1900, in the loose, impres­sion­ist Bull­fight, above, a return of sorts to his first oil paint­ing, Pic­a­dor, below, made when he was 8. Fur­ther down, see a draw­ing from the fol­low­ing year in his ear­ly devel­op­ment, “Bull­fight and Pigeons.”

This piece, with its real­is­tic-look­ing birds care­ful­ly drawn upside-down atop a loose sketch of a bull­fight, appeared in a 2006 show at the Philips Col­lec­tion in Wash­ing­ton, DC fea­tur­ing child­hood art­works from Picas­so and Paul Klee. Con­trary, per­haps, to our expec­ta­tions, cura­tor Jonathan Fineberg remarks of this draw­ing that “9‑year-old Picasso’s con­fi­dent, play­ful scrib­ble” gives us more indi­ca­tion of his tal­ent than the fine­ly-drawn birds.

“It’s not just that Picas­so could ren­der well, because you could teach any­body to do that,” Fineberg says. Maybe not any­body, but the point stands—technique can be taught, cre­ative vision can­not. “It’s not about skill. It’s about unique qual­i­ties of see­ing. That’s what makes Picas­so a bet­ter artist than Andrew Wyeth. Art is about a nov­el way of look­ing at the world.” You may pre­fer Wyeth, or think the down­ward com­par­i­son unfair, but there’s no deny­ing Picas­so had a very “nov­el way of see­ing,” from his ear­li­est sketch­es to his most rev­o­lu­tion­ary mod­ernist mas­ter­pieces. See sev­er­al more high­ly accom­plished ear­ly works from Picas­so here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

14 Self-Por­traits by Pablo Picas­so Show the Evo­lu­tion of His Style: See Self-Por­traits Mov­ing from Ages 15 to 90

The Gestapo Points to Guer­ni­ca and Asks Picas­so, “Did You Do This?;” Picas­so Replies “No, You Did!”

How To Under­stand a Picas­so Paint­ing: A Video Primer

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Johnny says:

    Why the jab at Wyeth? This is art, not horse rac­ing.

  • Chris says:

    C’mon, John­ny. The “jab” is the quot­ed opin­ion of some­one the author inter­views, and the author goes out of his way to dis­tance him­self from it (“You may pre­fer Wyeth, or think the down­ward com­par­i­son unfair …”).

  • Kelly says:

    Picas­so, yes what a tal­ent, art is not a com­pe­ti­tion, or at least that’s how I see it. We learn we grow we learn we grow, it’s a new day.

  • Alexa says:

    What every­one seems to ignore is that Pablo’s father was also a painter, so he prob­a­bly gave his son a lot of point­ers from a young age on how to draw and paint.

  • Bre says:

    Cool! Thanks for point­ing that out. I had no idea, and we’re study­ing Picas­so in Eng­lish right now. So many sources por­tray him as an auto­mat­ic genius at art from birth or some­thing, but don’t tell us that his father was an artist, too, which prob­a­bly helped a lot. Pfft.

  • Alan mihlstin says:

    I. View myself as a hap­py per­son who was gift­ed with Some thing. At an ear­ly age that drew me to just Using what ever was placed in front of me, at age 10 I was to go to the school . Music and art in Man­hat­tan, 8 out of 11 of my works were in the. NYC, finals city wide art show. I nev­er went, my moth­er’s wor­ry about me trav­el­ing sub­ways at age 10. From Ridge­wood Brook­lyn, I’m now 83. Still doing my art, use pas­ta Is main­ly, love get­ting hands dirty. My skills go from any and every spec­trum . but I find my most plea­sure in just let­ting and allow­ing my total self cre­ate. I nev­er took any art stud­ies, but I’m proud to say, I have some of the world’s most famous artists from all per­spec­tives both com­ple­ment me and mar­vel. Yes I do myself won­der where I’m able to do and cre­ate every aspect of art that I do, abstract, con­tem­po­rary, sur­re­al­is­tic, very UN usu­al per­spec­tives, per­spec­tives you will nev­er encounter. SO , YES I DO CINNECT AND UNDERSTAND HOW THESE. MASTERS CAN BE WHAT THEY WERE. THERE BORN WITH IT! Only to improve with time and doing !! The dif­fer­ence is ! I’m very aware of the gift I was giv­en. I won­der if they knew there’s ? Just as an invite, when I cre­ate or copy a scene or land­scape, or an image from my .ins, I become it ! I use my medi­um and hands to be part of it ! It’s me ! It’s not just a scene ! I’m sure these past Cre­ates a were the same ! I look at there strikes, the col­ors, the sub­jects, I then know them.

  • aragorn oswald says:

    All this non­sense is even fun­nier when you KNOW that works such as Sci­ence and char­i­ty, The first com­mu­nion, or his moth­er por­trait were NOT done by his hand. This is a huge his­tor­i­cal mistake/fraud, besides the blue/rose peri­ods and a few done after the ear­li­er cubist peri­od, he wasn´t able to paint like an aca­d­e­m­ic mas­ter, it is time to fix this lie once and for all.

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