10 Things You Didn’t Know About Pablo Picasso

10 minute read

More than any other artist, Pablo Picasso defined Modern Art of the 20th century. During his lifetime, he was adored by the French public and the art establishment, reaching celebrity status in his later years. Born in Málaga, Spain, in October 1881, Picasso eventually moved to France, where he would live for the rest of his life and pave the way for the world of Modern Art. After he died in 1973 at the age of 91, his fame only grew. Today, it is not unusual for his paintings to achieve eight figures at auction; his most expensive painting, Les Femmes d'Alger ("Version O"), brought $179.4 million in 2015.

More importantly, however, was his lasting influence on the realm of art history. No artist before or since Picasso has made such waves in the art world. Picasso not only broke boundaries, he rewrote the rules, creating and reinventing entirely unique modes of artistic expression, from Cubism to collage. His impact was indelible and is still felt to this day.

Picasso’s life has been the subject of innumerable memoirs, novels, plays, movies and documentaries. While we all may know about his most famous artistic triumphs (and his infamous affairs), there may be a few things about Picasso’s life that still surprise you. Read on as we uncover 10 facts that you might not know about the life of this artistic titan.

Pablo Picasso in 1908 Pablo Picasso in 1908

1. He was the most prolific artist who ever lived.

Picasso has gone down in the annals of art history as not only one of the most important painters of all time, but also the busiest. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he was the most prolific professional artist to have ever lived. Over his 75-year career, he produced an estimated 147,800 pieces — 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints and engravings, 300 sculptures and ceramics and 34,000 illustrations.

Not included in that number are the more than 300 poems he also wrote. Few people realize that Picasso took pen to paper on numerous occasions, beginning at the age of 53 in 1935 and continuing until the summer of 1959. His stream-of-consciousness-style writing took cues from his own breakthroughs in Cubism and collage. He eschewed grammar and punctuation in favor of a juxtaposition of imagery, as exemplified by the following translated example:

in a goblet sleeves of a harlequin costume
knotted around its stem the toro’s head expires embroiled
in the scent of verbena and candles stand on a drum
balanced by a prism’s deceptive stammer
-Pablo Picasso, June 6, 1936

Tête d'Homme Barbu V (Head of Bearded Man) Pablo Picasso. Dated 1965. M.S. Rau. Tête d'Homme Barbu V (Head of Bearded Man) Pablo Picasso. Dated 1965. M.S. Rau.

2. If Picasso were alive today, he would be one of wealthiest men in the world.

The penniless artist is a common trope for a reason — most artists were under-appreciated during their lifetime, with their works gaining recognition and value only after their deaths. For a handful of artists, however, fame and fortune came early, and they were able to enjoy their time in the limelight. Picasso was one of these lucky few.

When Picasso died in 1973, he was worth between $100 and $250 million, though his estate was unofficially
estimated by some experts to be worth closer to $400 million. He not only owned valuable artwork (his own paintings), but also five separate properties, a large savings account, gold and bonds. After adjusting for inflation, his estate was equal to between $530 million and $1.3 billion today.

Musée Picasso Interior of the Musée Picasso in Paris

3. The estate taxes after his death were paid in paintings.

While he boasted wealth and assets reflecting a lifetime of financial savvy, what he did not have was a will. Rather than engaging in a long judicial dispute, his heirs decided to act on a 1968 law that enables the French government to accept works of art in lieu of inheritance taxes. The approximately 4,000 works that were subsequently handed over to the French state formed the basis of the collection of the Musée Picasso in Paris.

Additional works and archival materials were donated by Picasso’s heirs to the institution, and another large group of works came into the collection in 1986 following the death of Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque. Today, the Musée Picasso collection comprises more than 5,000 works and tens of thousands of archived pieces offering considerable insight into the life and legacy of the artistic master.

Tête d'Homme by Pablo Picasso Tête d'Homme by Pablo Picasso. Dated 1964. M.S. Rau.

4. His iconic striped shirt held a special meaning.

Picasso is remembered as one of the great artistic icons of the 20th century, but did you know he was also a fashion icon? Along with Coco Chanel, Picasso helped to make the now-iconic “Breton Stripe” a fashion staple. Not merely a simple striped shirt, the Breton Stripe had a special meaning. It was originally introduced in 1858 as the uniform for the French Navy and was specially made by independent tailors in Bretagne. Featuring 21 stripes — one for each of Napoléon’s victories — the bold pattern allowed one to more easily spot a sailor who had fallen overboard.

The legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel took notice of the design during an early 20th-century holiday along the French coast, and she subsequently incorporated what became known as the “Breton Stripe” into her 1917 nautical collection. Just a few decades later, a mature Picasso adopted the Breton Stripe shirt as part his signature style, wearing it almost every single day. He even painted himself in the shirt in several self-portraits from his later career.

Picasso with revolver Picasso with revolver

5. He would carry a revolver and “shoot” people he found dull.

Every great artist has their quirks, and Picasso was no exception. Perhaps his quirkiest trait was this: He often carried a revolver filled with blanks to “shoot” people he found dull. He developed the practice after studying the life and works of Alfred Jarry, the French writer known for his controversial play Ubu Roi. Jarry was infamous for his unpredictable behavior, including brandishing pistols during parties of his literary circle.

Picasso adopted a similar practice, carrying a Browning revolver that was actually once owned by Jarry. Filled with blanks, the gun would be “discharged” at anyone Picasso found dull, including but not limited to those who questioned the meaning of his paintings or who insulted Paul Cézanne, his artistic mentor.

Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Queen Sofía Museum), Madrid.

6. Two of his paintings are international symbols of war and peace.

Picasso was not one to shy away from extremes during his long career. He frequently spoke out against the atrocities of war, particularly those acts committed during against his native Spain. Later, at the age of 62, he made the controversial move of joining the Communist Party, though he would often clash with Communist leadership. To the end, in his art and in his life, Picasso was not afraid to explore the most extreme tendencies of humankind.

His paintings Guernica and Dove of Peace are perhaps the best examples of these extremes, the first representing the atrocities of war and the latter evoking the healing that comes from peace.

Picasso painting Guernica Picasso painting Guernica

Guernica was a small Basque town that was the victim of extensive bombing by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. When Picasso heard of the unimaginable suffering taking place in his homeland, he painted one of his greatest masterpieces ever, Guernica. A visceral reaction to the inhumanity of the attacks, the monumental work is rendering in melancholy shades of blue and grey, depicting twisted, grotesque figures wretched by chaos and violence. After its completion, the canvas was rolled up and toured around the world; after its tour, Guernica became an enduring symbol of war and destruction across the globe.

Picasso’s Dove of Peace, on the other hand, became a universal symbol of the peace movement after it was used to illustrate the poster of the 1949 Paris Peace Congress. A year later at the 1950 Peace Congress in Sheffield, Picasso made a brief speech, which he concluded, “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war.”

Picasso with Rousseau Picasso before Portrait of a Woman by Henri Rousseau

7. He “discovered” the primitive painter Henri Rousseau.

It is perhaps one of the most infamous stories from Picasso’s early career. Claiming to have found a painting by Rousseau in a junk shop and instantly recognizing his genius, Picasso set out to meet the painter. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) had at this point been painting for most of his life, though his lack of success meant he also held a job as a toll and tax collector. The post led to him being jokingly nicknamed Le Douanier (“the customs officer”) by the French avant garde.

Rousseau, who never doubted his own artistic genius, also never doubted Picasso’s friendship. However, Picasso felt a more ironic admiration for the much-older painter’s works. The odd relationship reached infamous heights in 1908, when Picasso threw a half-serious, half-mocking party, known today as Le Banquet Rousseau, in Rousseau’s honor, inviting the likes of Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris.

Though it was likely conceived as a lavish joke on Rousseau, the party ultimately helped to catapult him further into the spotlight. By the time of his death just two years later in 1910, Rousseau had come to be appreciated by the increasingly important Post-Impressionists, earning a reputation as a respected artist. Today, he is considered the greatest Naïve painter of all time.

L'Arlésienne by Pablo Picasso. Dated 1958. M.S. Rau L'Arlésienne by Pablo Picasso. Dated 1958. M.S. Rau

8. His artistic legacy continues through the work of his children.

In spite of — or perhaps because of — his artistic genius, Picasso left behind a somewhat tainted personal legacy. He could be mocking in his friendship (see previous point), belittling in his relationships and vindictive towards his relatives. His innumerable relationships and love affairs have gone down in infamy, though many of his female companions would become the subjects of his greatest paintings.

Picasso also had four children (with three different women): Paulo, with his first wife Olga Khokhlova; Maya, with Marie-Thérèse Walter; and Claude and Paloma, with Francoise Gilot. All have been featured to some extent in Picasso’s works, most famously Maya, who appeared in an early series of portraits. Paulo passed away in 1975, but Picasso’s other children work to maintain the legacy of the Picasso name. Maya and Claude both serve as authenticators of their father’s work, while Paloma paved her own artistic path as a jewelry designer for Tiffany & Co.

Pablo Picasso with his sister Lola, 1889 Pablo Picasso with his sister Lola, 1889.

9. Not only was Picasso an artistic genius, but he was also a child prodigy.

Picasso’s talent manifested itself early and with a fury. He was exposed to art at a young age thanks to his father, who was a painter and a professor at the Escuelas de Bellas Artes in La Coruña and Barcelona. According to his mother, Picasso’s first word was "piz," a shortening of lápiz, meaning "pencil." His future as an artist already seemed clear.

As early as the age of seven, Picasso sat in on his father’s ornamental drawing classes, exposing him to the traditions of Academic art. He completed his first painting, Le Picador, at the age of nine. The bullfight would be a theme that Picasso would return to time and time again throughout his career.

Thanks to his father’s influence, Picasso was admitted to an art school in Barcelona at the young age of 13, though his admission was contingent on Picasso passing an entrance exam. The test normally took students upwards of a month to complete, but Picasso finished his exam within a weeks’ time. According to Roland Penrose, Picasso claimed he “could draw like Raphael” when he was young. “But it has taken me my whole life to learn to draw like a child,” he purportedly added.

10. His name isn’t merely “Pablo Picasso.”

Picasso. The name has come to represent not merely a man, but a movement. Yet, the “Pablo Picasso” we have come to know is not actually the name the great artist was born with. Picasso was baptized in the Spanish tradition with a litany of names that honored both saints and relatives: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. His father’s name was Jose Ruiz Blasco, but he chose to adopt his mother’s name, María Picasso y López.

Click here to view our current collection of works by this 20th-century master.

References:
“Most prolific painter.” Guinnessworldrecords.com. Accessed October 16, 2019.
“The Collection.” Museepicassoparis.fr. Accessed October 17, 2019.
Picasso, Pablo. A Picasso Samplers: Excerpts from The Burial Of The Count Of Orgaz & Other Poems. (J. Rothenberg & P. Joris, Trans.) Ubu Classics, 2004.
Miller, Arthur J. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. Basic Books, 2002.
Penrose, Roland and John Golding, eds. Picasso 1881/1973. London 1973.

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