Francis Picabia
Biography and Paintings of Cubist/Surrealist Artist.

Pin it


Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

The energetic painter, designer and writer on avant-garde art Francis Picabia, began his career producing Impressionist paintings, before taking an active role in several important movements of modern art, such as Cubism, followed by Dada and later Surrealism. In addition, he exerted considerable influence as a writer and publisher, being noted for his rejection of all notions of good taste. A practitioner of abstract art as well as representational art, Picabia's Rubber (1909, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre) is sometimes cited as one of the earliest abstract paintings. Other famous paintings by Picabia include: the 'Salon Cubist' La Source (1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Udnie (1913, Musee National d'Art Moderne), inspired by the controversial dancer Mademoiselle Napierskowa, Young American Girl in a State of Nudity (1915, published in 291), the Dadaist Portrait of Cezanne (1920), The Fig-Leaf (1922, Tate, London), the suggestive Women With Bulldog (1941-2, Musee National d'Art Moderne), The Spanish Revolution (1937, Private Collection). A larger than life character, he remains one of the most colourful of 20th Century painters.

Best Known Works

Portrait of a Woman (1935)
Private Collection.

Portrait of Cezanne (1920)
A scandalous example of
avant-garde French painting.

For more artists like Francis Picabia,
see: Modern Artists.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.

For a list of the best examples of
Fine Art Painting, by the
world's top artists, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Early Days

In 1894, to show off the precocious talent of his son, Picabia's Spanish father sent one of the boy's canvases to the Salon. Not only was the painting, Vue des Martigues, accepted, but it won a prize. The next year Picabia entered the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, where he studied 1895-7, but was more interested in attending classes at the Louvre or at the Academie Humbert where he worked beside Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin. In 1897 he came under the sway of Impressionism after discovering the works of Alfred Sisley and his interest grew the following year when he met the Pissarro family. This marked the beginning of an extremely fertile period which lasted for ten years and resulted in hundreds of paintings in an Impressionist style calculated to appeal to the public.

Picabia's first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Haussmann in 1905 was a triumph. The works on show were in the tradition of the pur luminisme impressionniste and revealed nothing of the experiments going on with plasticity at the time (The Church at Moret, 1904, Milan, Private Collection).


Break With Impressionism: Experimentation

Gradually, however, Picabia came to question the aesthetics to which he owed his growing success. In 1908 a meeting with Gabrielle Buffet - whom he was later to marry and who encouraged him in his pursuit of new trends in painting - completed the break with Impressionism, his private income making it possible for him to live without having to depend on commissions.

The next phase in Picabia's career was remarkable for the diversity of his experiments. Although he was particularly drawn to abstract art, he took an almost equal interest in Cubism and Fauvism (India-Rubber, 1909, and Landscape, 1909, both Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne), and (Regattas, 1911, Paris, Private Collection). But the most important influence in his career was Marcel Duchamp, whom he met around 1911 when he was already married to Gabrielle Buffet. Both men found themselves opposed to doctrinal Cubists such as Gleizes and Metzinger who strongly disapproved of some of the work done by the other two, particularly Duchamp's female nudes which they believed were unsuitable subjects for Cubism. Through Duchamp, Picabia was able to meet Apollinaire and shortly afterwards, in October 1912, helped to organize an exhibition in Paris for the Section d'Or, whose participants included Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918), Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Andre Lhote (1885-1962), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Juan Gris (1887-1927), Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925), Fernand Leger (1881-1955) and others. Picabia also exhibited at the avant-garde art gallery of Leonce Rosenberg (1879-1947).




Between January and May 1913 Picabia visited the United States where he acted as the spokesman for Cubist painting on exhibition at the Armory Show in New York, and enjoyed a one-man show organized by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) at "291". The experience affected him deeply: interviews with the press, lectures where he was surrounded by millionaire anarchists - all created an atmosphere in which his boisterous character blossomed. New York bowled him over with its colours and rhythm, and its love of jazz and sport which inspired him to paint a series of watercolours (New York, 1913, Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne; Negro Song, 1913, Metropolitan Museum). On his return to Paris he developed these into huge oil paintings where only the shapes and colours allowed the viewer to perceive 'another' reality, by freeing the picture from its dependence on 'objective' external subjects (I Recall through Memory My Dear Udnie, 1914, New York, Museum of Modern Art; Catch as Catch Can, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Udnie, 1913, Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne).

It was around this time that Apollinaire produced his theory of Orphism. In Picabia's work, however, what might be termed 'mechanomorphic' elements were beginning to appear. The role of the machine, that 'daughter without a mother', became ever more prominent until his paintings came to resemble the simple working drawings of an engineer (Voila La Femme [Behold the Woman], 1915, Paris, Private Collection; Voila la fille nee sans mere [Behold the Daughter Born without a Mother], 1916-17, Ales, Private Collection).


On the outbreak of war Picabia was called up and in 1915 was sent on a mission to Cuba, stopping at New York on the way. Here he remained for nearly a year. He was reunited with Duchamp and several other friends with whom he collaborated on the avant-garde review 291. After several months of wild living he put aside his brushes for a while and wrote the first of his Cinquante-Deux Miroirs (Fifty-Two Mirrors), published in Barcelona in 1917.

Picabia made a very brief visit to Cuba to carry out his 'mission', then left for Barcelona with his wife in August 1916. Here he found Gleizes, Marie Laurencin and the 'poet-boxer' Arthur Cravan, with whom he brought out another review which, in memory of 291, was called 391. Four numbers appeared in Barcelona, during which time he slowly began to take up drawing again (Novia, 1917, and Flamenca, 1917, in 391, Nos 1 and 3).


In March 1917 Picabia set sail for New York for the last time. He stayed for six months and revived 391, which was Americanized for three editions. With Duchamp, he participated in the first Independents' Exhibition in New York, but following a nervous breakdown returned to Europe, and during his treatment in Switzerland began a correspondence with Tristan Tzara, founder, in Zurich, of Dada. Making a sudden recovery, Picabia returned to Paris in March 1919, and was soon joined by Tzara. Within six months Dada had conquered Paris: scandalous demonstrations and revolt in the arts, literature and politics were all conducted with outrageous panache.

Picabia, meanwhile, continued to paint his pictures of machinery (The Carbonizing Child, 1919, New York, Guggenheirn Museum; Combustible Engine, 1919-22, Private Collection). In 1922 he turned to collage (Straw Hat, 1921-2, Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne; Centimetres, 1924-5, Milan, Private Collection). His retum to figuration (Nuit espagnole [Spanish Night], 1922, Private Collection) coincided with a number of undisplayed experiments with abstraction (Volucelle II, 1922, Private Collection).

Move to Surrealism

Numerous exhibitions followed in quick succession. Then, in May 1921, when the 14th issue of 391 was appearing, Picabia suddenly gave up Dadaism. In July, he produced a special number of the magazine called Pilhaou-Thibaou, which was a violently anti-Dada manifesto. At the same time he renewed his friendship with Andre Breton and with the nascent Surrealism movement. This phase lasted until 1924, when he moved to Mougins in the Midi and began painting the 'monsters' (Woman with a Parasol, 1924-5, Private Collection).

Moves to Midi

Picabia remained at Mougins for the next 20 years, where, after creating the scenario and decor for the ballet Reldche, with music by Satie, for the Swedish Ballet, he collaborated with Rene Clair in a film, Entr'acte.

The year 1927, or thereabouts, saw the beginning of a new period, that of his 'transparencies' (Sphinx, 1929, Paris, Musee National d'Art Moderne), which continued until about 1930, after which he painted in a more or less conventional manner: portraits, landscapes and nudes (Suzy Solidor, 1933, Milan, Private Collection). In 1937-8 he produced several abstract paintings.

Last Years

Picabia finally left the Midi in 1945 to return to Paris with Olga Mohler, whom he had married in 1940. The move led to yet another new development in his painting which he called 'Surirrealism', the first results of which he exhibited in 1946. Three years later the Drouin Gallery held an important retrospective exhibition of his work: the catalogue was called 491.

Mixing with younger artists such as Hartung, Soulages and Atlan finally led Picabia to abstraction (Danger de la force [Danger of Strength], 1947-50, Paris, Picabia Estate). in 1948, together with Hartung, Wols, Mathieu and Bryen, he showed works which are among the earliest examples of non-figuration psychique, and can be regarded in some ways as an outcome of Surrealism, to which he had contributed in the beginning. In 1948 the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris acquired Udnie. Picabia painted very little after 1951.

Paintings by Francis Picabia can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographical details of other important modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For the evolution of abstract painting, see: History of Art.
• For more about French abstract painters, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.