Early Cubist Painting
Prototype Cubism, History, Styles: By Picasso and Braque.

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Early Cubist Painting (c.1907-9)


When did Cubism begin?
How Did Picasso Discover Cubism?
How Did Braque Arrive at Cubism?
Picasso and Braque: Collaboration (1908-9)
Conventions of Perspective Are Rejected
Differing Sources of Light
Greatest Early Cubist Paintings


Self Portrait (1906)
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Picasso now introduces a primitive
mask-like face as well as geometrics.

Woman with Loaves (1906)
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Picasso introduces geometric forms.

Large Nude (1908)
Musee National d'Art Moderne.
By Georges Braque.

When did Cubism begin?

If pushed, most art historians would say that the movement known as Cubism began in 1907 with Picasso's picture Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (MOMA, NY). This work signalled the start of an exploratory phase, during which Picasso and Georges Braque came together to establish a number of new and important principles of modern art.

In the process they created some of the greatest paintings of the 20th century.

This collaboration did not happen overnight: it wasn't until 1908 that both artists formed the intimate working relationship ("two mountaineers roped together"), based on the ideas of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) - especially as expressed in his masterpiece The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) - which led to the invention of first Analytical Cubism (c.1909-1912) and then Synthetic Cubism (1912-14).


Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907)
MOMA, New York.
Picasso's first real Cubist picture.
Composed of full-on primitivism,
mixed with fractured geometric
shards of deconstructed figures.

Road near L'Estaque (1908)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
by Georges Braque.

How Did Picasso Discover Cubism?

During his first year or so in Paris, Picasso worked in a manner close to that of Toulouse-Lautrec but bursting everywhere with restlessness, as if impatient to shift into a new direction. This was swiftly followed by his "blue period" which transitioned into his "rose period". But with the restlessness of an explorer or an inventor, Picasso changed again at the end of 1906 in a way that is important as an early step toward Cubism. He began to discipline his graceful figures into new sculptural forms with an imposition of decisive geometrical regularities. Evident to begin with in Lady with a Fan (1905, Private Collection), the new discipline is even more emphatic in Woman with Loaves (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art), with its geometrical solids built firmly upon one another into a compact whole. The ovoid form of the torso is surmounted by the white cylinder of the cap, which is pierced to reveal the simplified sculptural forms of the head. The two loaves of bread rest on top of this structure like architectural members surmounting a column.

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Woman with Loaves was painted in the summer of 1906 (despite the date 1905, added in error beneath the signature). Earlier that year Picasso had begun a Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the American writer who had set herself up in Paris a few years earlier and had already become a major patron, proselytizer, and practitioner in the international intellectual avant-garde. After eighty sittings Picasso had wiped out the face of her portrait. Whatever the face had been like, it is obvious that in the rest of the picture Cezanne is very much present. When Picasso returned to the picture after the summer interval during which he painted Woman with Loaves, the new force at work in his art produced the masklike face which is so at variance with the Cezannesque forms that surround it. In his Self Portrait (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art) painted immediately afterward, the masklike quality has increased, and its severe half-primitive quality has extended to the figure also.

By his own statement, in Woman with Loaves, the Stein portrait, and his own portrait, Picasso was influenced by the archaic sculpture of pre-Roman Spain. But the two portraits show that he had already discovered African sculpture also. At any rate the ingredients for Cubism were now assembled. These were: the painting of Paul Cezanne, with his concept of volume and space as abstract geometry to be dealt with at whatever necessary rejection of their natural relationships; primitive art, that is, African and archaic sculpture with their untheoretical but exciting reduction of natural forms to geometrical equivalents; and, finally, the intuitive genius of Picasso and the deductive mind of Braque to merge these components with dashes of several others in their search for new expressive means.

This new expression was soon to have a name, Cubism, and to be codified into a theory. But for the moment it manifested itself half formed, in 1907, in a large painting by Picasso which, although technically ambiguous, is decisively the beginning point of Cubism. A composition involving five female nudes, the traditional bathers motif, it was later dubbed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as a joke, and has continued by that name as a convenience.

Everyone admits that these five 'demoiselles' are among the unloveliest females in the history of art, and no one pretends that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, MOMA, New York) is an unqualified success in every way, but on the other hand no student of 20th century painting denies its position as a landmark. It is a discordant picture, not only in the way it ruptures, fractures, and dislocates form with a violence that would probably have appalled Cezanne, but in the disharmony of its own parts. On the left the standing figure is hieratic in its formality, posed in a standard attitude of Egyptian sculpture. But by the time the right side of the picture is reached, this formality has given way to a jagged, swinging, crashing line, and the African mask makes its impact with full force in the grotesque faces.

As it was, the year 1907 was exceptionally stimulating for Picasso. He was in the middle of his African or Negro period (1906-7), during which he was absorbing the aesthetics of African tribal art - a process which as we have just seen culminated in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, as well as oils like Head (1907, Barnes Foundation), Bust of a Woman (1907, MoMA, NY) and Nude (Bust) (1907, Hermitage, St Petersburg). Other vivid examples of his 'African' paintings of the time include: Woman with a Fan (1907, Hermitage, St Petersburg) and Dance of the Veils (Nude with Drapery) (1907, Hermitage, St Petersburg). In 1908, he continued with the primitivist style of Les Demoiselles, executing a number of ethnic-style works with well-modelled, angular bodies. They include: Seated Woman (1908, Hermitage, St Petersburg), Dryad (1908, Hermitage, St Petersburg), and Farm Woman (Full-Length) (1908, Hermitage, St Petersburg). Only in his mid/late-1908 works such as Friendship (1908, Pushkin Museum, Moscow) and Three Women (1908, Pushkin Museum), does the influence of Cezanne begin to emerge.

How Did Braque Arrive at Cubism?

At the start of 1907, Braque was known as a member of Fauvism, the high-fashion style of colourism which had burst onto the Parisian art world in 1905. However two events in 1907 would rapidly change his life. First, he was bowled over by the major Cezanne retrospective, at the Salon d'Automne. Second, his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler introduced him to Apollinaire and Picasso. Braque visited the latter at his studio in the tumbledown Bateau Lavoir complex in the Rue Ravignan, Montmartre, where he was profoundly impressed by Les Demoiselles. Indeed, he was so taken with it, that he abandoned Fauvism and spent the next six months working on a new picture - Large Nude (1908, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou) - which required him to transform his whole method of painting.

Unlike Picasso, however, Braque moved directly directly from his Large Nude to more overt Cubist imagery (in the manner of Cezanne), namely his landscapes at L'Estaque. So by late 1908, stylistically he was fractionally ahead of his Spanish partner.

The developmental period of Cubism, 1907-1909, is often called its "Cezanne phase," on the basis of pictures like Braque's Road near L'Estaque (1908, Museum of Modern Art, New York), with its combination of geometrical simplification and faceted shapes. But despite the geometrics, the picture is, in spirit, anything but Cezannesque. The shapes themselves are bolder and more obvious than Cezanne's, and they have a nervousness, an insistence, a thrust, a harsh, angular movement that exaggerates the sense of vibrant life typical of a Cezanne landscape, and sacrifices to it the classical order that also permeates Cezanne's world.


Picasso and Braque: Collaboration (1908-9)

In 1908, by now both deeply intrigued by Paul Cezanne's geometric-style landscapes, Picasso and Braque set about extending their mentor's ideas. First, they completed a series of landscape paintings that were very similar to those by Paul Cezanne. Thus all natural forms were reduced to basic geometric shapes and the colour palette was predominantly subdued blues and greens. (Picasso still maintained his keenness for his warmer ochres and siennas). They painted houses in the form of 3-D cubes: Braque at L'Estaque; Picasso at Horta del Ebro in Spain. It was these paintings that the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles was describing in 1909, when he used the expression 'bizarreries cubiques' - which led to the adoption of the word Cubism.

Theory of Cubism
The first treatise on the new style, entitled Du Cubisme (1912), written by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, was published in 1912, to coincide with the Section d'Or exhibition of Cubist art at Galerie La Boetie in Paris.

Conventions of Perspective Rejected

In this early phase of prototype-Cubism, Picasso and Braque utilized several technical devices to undermine the illusion of space. To begin with, they rejected all the normal conventions of linear perspective. Instead of diminishing size signifying background, perspective was rendered by means of colour: warm reddish browns were used for foreground, cool blues for background. Buildings appear one on top of the other instead of standing one behind the other. In Houses on the Hill (1909, MoMA), Picaso used similar cubic-shaped imagery for his background and foreground (houses). By rendering earth and sky in the same way, he introduced greater unity to the picture but also introduced ambiguity: after all, there was now less difference between ground and air.

Multiple Sources of Light

Another technique used by both Braque and Picasso in their early Cubist art, involved the use of different light sources. Whereas traditional pictures employ a consistent light source (to create the illusion of three-dimensional space), in Cubist canvases light appears to enter the composition from numerous different angles thus confusing the viewer as to whether shapes are convex or concave.

Greatest Early Cubist Paintings

In addition to works already cited, here is a short selected list of early Cubist pictures, executed in the manner of Cezanne, which can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

Georges Braque
Viaduct in Estaque (1908) Musee National d'Art Moderne.
Houses at L'Estaque (1908) Kunstmuseum, Bern.
Road Near L'Estaque (1908) Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, New York.
Large Nude (1908) Musee National d'Art Moderne.

Pablo Picasso
House in a Garden (1908) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Little House in a Garden (1909) Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
Houses on the Hill (1909) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Fruit in a Vase (1909) Hermitage Museum.
Woman with a Fan (1909) Pushkin Museum.
Brick Factory at Tortosa (1909) Hermitage Museum.

Note: Picasso's most famous late Cubist paintings include: Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia Art Museum, Madrid) and Weeping Woman (1937, Tate, London).

For works by other Cubists, see Cubist Painters.

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• For styles of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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