The Most Influential Artist in the 20th Century

Yanjin Song

© Copyright 2022 by Yanjin Song
Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

The jacket of my school uniform is white with navy blue and luminous orange color blocks. The unusual shape and color pattern caught my eye, and I was curious as to how such designs are created. Some weeks ago, I was surprised when my math teacher mentioned in class that the uniform design is based on Picasso's paintings. Then he explained that Picasso loved using color blocks and comparative colors such as dark blue and bright orange, the same colors used on my uniform. I was interested in learning more about the famous artist, Picasso, and began doing some research. After viewing his work and learning more, I could see that he was the most popular and influential artist of the 20th century.

Picasso was born in Spain in 1881. His father was also an artist and this was a significant factor of Picasso’s art career. Picasso spent his childhood in art museums and spent his days in his father’s studio, already painting and drawing, when he was very young. It is said that Picasso’s first word was “piz”, pencil in Spanish. When Picasso was 9-year-old, he could draw a horse with clear lines depicting its muscles although the horse doesn’t seem so three-dimensional. Within a few years, Picasso could draw incredibly realistic body shapes and faces. By the time Picasso was 11 years old, his paintings were mature enough to be considered as skilled as some really famous artists’ paintings at that time.

At only 16 years old, Picasso’s painting skills led to his acceptance at Spain’s top art academy, Madrid's Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, in 1897. Picasso chose art school since his marks on other subjects were low, but he was really not interested in attending any school at all, instead, he would rather go to art exhibits to admire Rembrandt’s, Johannes Vermeer’s, El Greco’s, Francisco Goya’s, and Diego Velásquez’s works. During this period of time, by making friends with some of the impressionists and post-impressionists like Edvard Munch, Paul Cezanne, Henri Toulouse de Lautrec, his early style had been formed and greatly influenced by these artists.

The emotions that Picasso expressed in the works of his Blue Period deeply affected people at that time. During this early period in Picasso’s art career (1901-1904), poverty and sadness were the main theme in most of his paintings. After a period of intense depression caused by his friend’s death, Picasso began to draw poor people and refugees by using blue to express the feelings of sadness and despair. The emotions conveyed in the painting were obvious to all that saw them, making the paintings appeal to all types of people. The feelings expressed resonated strongly with the working-class people, while the upper-class people could appreciate the raw artistic talent and visually stunning color palettes in Picasso’s work. As a result, his work became wildly popular at that time. 

One of the most famous paintings in Picassos Blue Period is the Old Guitarist. It depicts an old blind man sitting and playing the guitar. All the subjects are painted in somber blue and black, except the old mans guitar. According to the color used and the way he appears to be sitting in a doorway, the viewer must conclude that the old man is a poor, starving beggar.

The guitar is brown, and it is brighter than any other subjects in the painting. The scruffy, old street-performer is sitting with his legs crossed, singing and playing the guitar and enjoying his music, despite being alone in his misery. As we all know, the brighter the things are in a painting, the more important it will be to the theme. I think the meaning of the attention-grabbing brown guitar is that it is the most important thing, maybe even the only thing, in the old mans life.

Picasso drew bright colors, especially rose-red, in his paintings during the Rose Period (1904-1906) and the paintings were popular with a large number young people in Paris, as well as in the whole France. Picasso moved from Spain to France, and would spend the rest of his life in Paris. Being influenced by the romantic city and the debauchery of the artists there, Picasso was also immersed in his young models. Meanwhile, the sorrow of his friend’s death has begun to ebb. The paintings of this period usually recount scenes of the entertainment enjoyed by young people and nobilities, like parties, circus troupes, dancing and picnics. It was a complete turnaround in the style of Picasso’s paintings, where he went from expressing poverty and sadness in cool tones, to scenes of luxury, excitement, and happiness. The feelings expressed in these paintings pleased people in the glamorous, hedonistic city of Paris, who enjoyed living in luxury and being surrounded by pretty women. 

The celebrated painting of the Rose Period called Acrobat and Young Harlequin’s colors is a classic representation of the period. The content in the painting is just the same as what its name says, an acrobat and a young short harlequin stand side by side. With a sword in his hand, the acrobat looks relaxed in both his bright red clothes and hat. The shirt and pants with diamond shapes are painted bright pink, bright red and blue. The light pink castle, light blue sky and the red rose on the walls make all this painting look extravagant and cheerful.

Acrobat and Young Harlequin is a reflection of Picasso’s life in France at that time. Maybe the models were two of the actors is a circus performance that Picasso once watched. There is little deeper meaning to be found, since Picasso’s intent in creating such works was simply to record his luxurious life in France by painting, and gain popularity among the affluent young artist population of that time.

In the African Period (1906-1909), Picasso’s paintings tend to have a large variety of subjects, but most tend to reflect African culture, and are especially characterized by wearing African masks. During this period of history, Western Europe was colonizing and dividing up Africa. Almost 90 percent of Africa was controlled by European countries. As a result, much African art had come to the attention of people in Europe and many treasures of the continent were taken and displayed in museums. The simple figures painted in masks strongly resembles his trademark cubism, and the African art trend of the time appears to be Picasso’s inspiration for this style, and even later, his forays into surrealism.

Picasso’s African Period played a vital role not only in Picasso’s lifetime, but also in the history of art, and how Picasso would be seen by future generations. It was a historical turning point which made Picasso no longer an impressionist, and led to the creation a new kind of art. It can even be said that it is African Period that directly led to Picasso becoming one of the most well-known and influential artists of all-time.
Farm Woman is a typical work of the African Period. It’s a half-length portrait of a strong African farm woman, wearing white shirt and blue skirt, with a crimson backdrop. Over her face is a very simple African mask, showing no emotion. Her body is made up of a few lines in the same way, nothing to reveal what she is feeling or thinking. Only the shading and rays of light in the painting set the tone. The simplicity of the painting is an imitation of the style of African works which were on display throughout Europe.

The African woman in Farm Woman hides her emotions under the mask she wears. Although we have no idea what she is thinking, we can easily surmise that she is exhausted and angry from working all day and the violence wrought on her country. As an artist, Picasso could sense the raw emotion and significance implicit in the African works he admired, and could sympathize with the plight of African people at this time. Thus, he drew this wretched woman with a heavy fate in order to tell colonists that they should stop colonizing and exploiting the poor people in Africa.

Picasso started a 7-year Cubism Revolution (1907-1914), creating the Cubism school, which remains one of the most recognized art styles in the world today. Cubism became Picasso’s trademark over time. During the later stage of African Period, subjects Picasso drew were more likely to be geometrical shapes, influenced by impressionist Paul Cezanne, whose work used angles to create a three-dimensional effect. In 1907, during his African Period, Picasso, together with his friend Georges Braque, began reforming the shape and the structure of the things within their works to make them totally different from the original subject of the painting. Nevertheless, the original object is still recognizable from its features or outlines or both. Paintings of the human body became his main subject matter during this period. However, every part of the human body is dislocated, rearranged. He used bright colors to form a strong contrast, like orange with blue, purple with yellow, and so on. This strange but visually appealing method of painting was christened Cubism, and soon it caused a big shock to the art world.

Even if a person does not study art, they are probably familiar with Picasso’s Dream. The model of this painting is a young woman. A 17-year-old girl named Maria-Teresa who had blonde hair and a sensuous body, met the 47-year-old Picasso in a train station in 1927, and the two began a tumultuous affair. In the painting, the girl is sleeping peacefully on a red sofa, leaning her head against the back of the sofa. It’s not hard to see that she is blindingly beautiful although her face is being “cut” into two pieces. Almost all the lines are drawn in gentle curves to approximate the body shape of a female. The contrast of the bright colors on the protagonist in the painting and the dark red in the background emphasizes the woman, meanwhile the vivid contrast of the two colors attract the eye. The painting fully expresses Picasso’s feelings about Teresa. Simple lines and colors, as well as color blocks, leave space for observers to imagine freely. 

After becoming a major influence in the art world, Picasso drastically altered his style. His Neoclassicism Period (1917-1920) was a turning point in his art career. He went to Italy, and was strongly inspired by Renaissance art that he saw. During this period, Picasso married his first wife, Olga, a Russian ballet dancer, in 1918. Olga brought Picasso into upper-class society, and his new lifestyle with her influenced Picasso to begin painting in a Neoclassicism style, drawing three-dimensional objects and the things more resembled recognizable figures, although they are a little hyperbole in size or ratio.

The two women running on the beach was a successful work of the Neoclassicism Period. The content of this painting is just as what it says in its name—two strong women running on the beach. Colors in this painting is vivid, similar to the colors he painted during his Cubism period, to represent the vigor of the women. The shade of the painting is neatly expressed, which matches the style of Neoclassicism very well, giving a 3D effect. We can easily see that they run really fast in their fluttering hair and clothes. Also, their strong bodies make the whole painting look stable and full of strength. The women are disproportionally large. This painting is filled with the love of freedom by using bright colors and drawing the running women.

Although Picasso didn’t pay much attention to the Surrealism school (1925), this school was deeply affected by him. Surrealism was influenced by Picasso’s Cubism even though they didn’t have any relationship with Picasso in the beginning. In 1925, Picasso was called “one of ours” by a Surrealist writer, André Breton, in the Révolution Surréaliste. When Picasso became interested in the “dark side” of humans’ mind, he used Surrealist concepts and put his Cubism works in an exhibition for Surrealist art. Then, men with cows’ head replaced the humans as the protagonist of his most paintings while he engaged in the Surrealist style.

Guernica is the most typical of Picasso’s Surrealist period. Becoming just the opposite of the styles Picasso used to draw in bright and exciting colors, Guernica is a black and white painting describing a scene of a cruel battle. Humans lie on the ground, with broken swords in their hands, seem to be painful. There’re some objects such as a cow’s head and a horse with an abstractive body in the painting that are the important symbol of Surrealism. These irrational kinds of things in dark background make the whole painting heavy, terrifying but mysterious.

Being the founder of modern art, Picasso’s sculptures have the same value as his paintings for us to appreciate. These works are showed in a way more likely to be Abstractionism and Cubism because they just give you an impression of shapes to make you think about what the real things they stand for. Although Picasso enjoyed making sculptures, he didn’t develop it indeed until 1966, when his sculpture works were first widely exhibited. 

The most famous sculpture Picasso created was in 1965, commissioned to the city of Chicago, which was never given a formal name, so local people just call it Chicago Picasso. It is difficult to see what it is, but we can still guess that it may be a woman’s head or a baboon’s head from its shape. Even though Picasso never told anyone about the content of this sculpture, there are many people who try to imagine what it is. For example, his grandson said that Picasso gained the inspiration from a French girl called Lydia Corbett. Some other people said it is a dog or a baboon. People in Chicago even call it a Phoenix, according to the history of the city. Whatever the actual subject, the sculpture is a definitely a Cubist work and symbolizes both Chicago and Picasso.

Another two significant parts in Picasso’s art career are Ceramics and Pottery (1946-1973), and these two parts are considered as Picasso’s second vital contribution to art, just under paintings. When, in 1942, Picasso spontaneously attended an exhibition in a small French town famous for ceramics, he was really inspired by these strange but interesting local art works and became acquainted with a ceramic artist, Susan Hamier. Later on, Picasso started thinking a lot about this art form and finally decided to try it. There are three periods in the Ceramic and Pottery area, which are flat painting period, cubism period and the pottery period, which covered 27 years of his life.

In the first period, the flat painting period, it is said that Picasso mostly used Chinese brushes brought by Chinese artist, Mr. Zhang Daqian to paint on porcelain plates, and that’s why this state is called “flat” painting period. Because of the characteristics of the Chinese brushes, the works Picasso made at that time also have features of Chinese painting style. From the work Hands with Fish, we can easily see that Picasso’s skills in ceramics hadn’t been fully developed. These pictures are flat and brightly-colored, most noticeably cobalt blue, to paint his plates.

Then Picasso had an idea about combining his own element, cubism, with ceramics in the cubism period. Maybe because of the lack of new inspiration, many people he painted in his oil paintings are also found in the ceramic works. For instance, Jacquelines Profile is both painted in oil paintings and on ceramics. He looked for new materials to paint pigments on, and decided on the traditional vessel. His most widely-known series in this period is a series of owls painted on vessels.

During the following period, the pottery period, Picasso started to shape pottery sculptures on his own. Owls were still one of his favorite things to make since he could make the vessels’ shapes more like the body of an owl. Moreover, he added some other expressions to the owls’ faces in different colors to make them look livelier. Besides the owls, Picasso shaped other things, but none that became as popular or famous as the owls.

Some years later there was a large and well-attended exhibition of all Picasso’s ceramic and pottery works. Suddenly, buying Picasso’s ceramic and pottery works became a trend, and this caused a worldwide sensation. Wood-owl is one of the owl series and is quite typical.

In conclusion, all the periods in Picasso’s art career, from his early years, to cubism, to his late-in-life forays into surrealism, have influenced both the art area and our daily life, past and present. There are even more works of Picasso, like his photos, and other paintings of Expressionism not mentioned above that are also meaningful. Modern artists such as Qingren Xing, in China, and David Hockney in the United States, have obvious characteristics that are traditionally associated with Picasso. The color and patterns of many commercial clothing designs can be traced back to Picasso’s influence. His innovative use of space, unprecedented variety of styles, and ability show many aspects of a subject in his work, have led Picasso to be the most influential artist of our time and his work is unparalleled by any other artist of the 20th century.


I’m Yanjin Song and I’m a 15-year-old girl from Nanjing, China. I am now studying in British Columbia Academy in Nanjing Foreign Language School. Football, skateboarding, piano, singing and drawing are all my favorite things to do. Besides, I’m very interested in art, including paintings and art history, and the artist I love most, of course, is Pablo Picasso. And that’s why I choose to write about him in this essay.

It may be strange, but the truth is that I started to admiring Picasso from a very young age. Picasso’s paintings are always the most eye-catching ones among all the “normal” paintings. The bright colors and unique shapes of objects made me pay more attention to his style. As I grew older, I learnt more and more about Picasso and found that our daily life is still being influenced deeply by him, in all kinds of areas.

Thus, I fell in love with Picasso and the art world he created on his own. I hope this essay can help more people acknowledge this great artist who made significant contributions to the whole world, Picasso.

Works cited:

Writer, Staff. “Who Were Pablo Picasso's Influences?” Reference, IAC Publishing, 2020, https://www.reference.com/world-view/were-pablo-picasso-s-influences-907ff3e1db82c8e3
Writer, Staff. “What Was Picasso’s Inspiration.” What Was Picasso's Inspiration?, 2019, https://news.masterworksfineart.com/2019/11/28/what-was-picassos-inspiration.
Copy Julia Layton "How Pablo Picasso Worked" 23 March 2010. HowStuffWorks.com. https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/artwork/pablo-picasso.html 4 December 2021

Writer, Staff. Focus on Pablo Picasso, 17 May 2018, https://focusonpicasso.com/product-category/surrealism-period/.
Tim, Tim. “Home: ImpressionistArts.” ImpressionistArts.com, 2019, https://impressionistarts.com/.
Mattoli, Craig, and Leona Mattoli. “Ceramics, Picasso's Last Wealth.” Picasso Ceramics | Leona Craig Art, 2008, http://picassoceramics.cn/.

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