Art News

Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921 ~ Reinventing Tradition at the National Gallery of Art

artwork: Pablo Picasso - Family of Saltimbanques, 1905 - Oil on canvas - Chester Dale Collection -  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

WASHINGTON, DC.- Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was the greatest draftsman of the 20th century, exploring every technique from a single line to explosions of color. Through some 60 works, Picasso’s Drawings, 1890–1921: Reinventing Tradition presents the dazzling development of the artist as a draftsman during the first 30 years of his career, from the precocious academic exercises of his youth to his radical innovations of cubism and collage. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from January 29th through May 6th, the exhibition includes many of Picasso’s finest drawings, watercolors, and pastels, borrowed from American and European public and private collections—including the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte—and seven drawings from the Gallery’s collection of 278 works by Picasso.

artwork: Pablo Picasso - The Lovers, 1923 oil on linen 130.2 x 97.2 cm. Chester Dale Collection National Gallery of Artist“Drawing served as an essential means of invention and discovery in Picasso’s multifaceted art, connecting him with the European masters of the near and distant past,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “Picasso’s work has long been integral to the Gallery’s collection and has been the subject of six important exhibitions here, but this is the first to focus on his major drawings, watercolors, pastels, and collages.”

Picasso’s Drawings, 1890–1921: Reinventing Tradition presents a diverse selection of works on paper arranged chronologically, from early academic studies and life drawings to preparatory drawings for paintings, major independent and finished drawings made for sale, and portraits of family and friends in all media.

The son of a drawing instructor, Picasso began to sketch at an early age. The exhibition opens with a selection of the most accomplished drawings from his childhood, including Hercules (1890)—his earliest known drawing. By age 14, he had mastered the conventions of classical draftsmanship through intense academic study and hard work, exemplified in Study of a Torso (1895) and Study from Life (1895–1897). The lessons learned in this period, as well as exposure to the art academies of La Coruña, Barcelona, and Madrid, and to old masters in the Prado, stayed with Picasso throughout his life.

Picasso’s move to Paris in 1904 coincided with rising public access to works on paper by old master and 19th-century artists through museum exhibitions and new means of reproduction. Inspired by Ingres, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas, as well as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, Picasso produced virtuoso drawings as independent works in a variety of materials (pen and ink, charcoal, pastel, watercolor, and gouache) and subjects (the couple, mother and child, and the harlequin family), for example Juggler with Still Life (1905).

The exhibition showcases the way in which Picasso (with Georges Braque) devised new approaches in drawing that culminated in cubism and collage—the most critical development in his career and arguably in the 20th century. His interest in ancient Iberian art led to geometric stylization in visions of his mistress Fernande Olivier. In studies of individual figures, such as Yellow Nude (Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) (1907), he revealed his thought processes as he progressively rendered the human figure more abstract. Watercolors of landscapes and still lifes as well as figures track Picasso’s development of the interlocking facets that underlay cubism. Six major variations on a standing female nude explore his analytic vocabulary. Another series shows the artist’s brilliant transformation of the new medium of collage into major artistic statements. In the collage The Cup of Coffee (1913), Picasso created a dialogue between conventional means of drawing and unconventional materials and techniques, and between virtual flatness and illusion of depth.

artwork: Pablo Picasso - Pierrot and Harlequin, Juan-les-Pins, 1920 Pen and black ink with gouache on cream paper, sheet (folded in half): 27.3 x 21.3 cm. - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC - Gift of Mrs. Gilbert W. Chapman, 1981.

During World War I and immediately following, Picasso balanced tradition against innovation, embracing both classical modes and the cubist approach to representation. In portraits and images of bathers and figures, the artist rendered his subjects in spare contour drawings—for example, The Bathers (1918)—and in carefully executed sculptural drawings of the face and body, as in Portrait of Madame Georges Wildenstein (1918).

The concluding works in the exhibition are from the summer of 1921, when Picasso and his wife Olga Khokhlova and baby Paulo were staying at Fontainebleau. Head of a Woman and Woman in a Hat Holding a Missal are pastel and charcoal renderings of monumental female figures, reflecting Picasso’s deep interest in the classical Mediterranean tradition.

The curators of the exhibition are Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator, The Frick Collection; Marilyn McCully, an independent scholar and Picasso expert; and Andrew Robison, senior curator of prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Visit :