Pablo Picasso: Spanish by birth, French at art

The 20th century’s greatest painter was born in Malaga but came into his own amid the sleaze and bohemianism of Paris – the only city that could have matched his peerless imagination

French tradition … Pablo Picasso at his studio in Mougins, France, 1971. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
French tradition … Pablo Picasso at his studio in Mougins, France, 1971. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Pablo Picasso, the greatest artist of the 20th century, was French.

Hold on … don’t comment yet.

I am fully aware that Picasso was born in Malaga in southern Spain in 1881, that he started his artistic career in Barcelona and remained proudly Spanish all his life.

But the reopening of the Musée Picasso in Paris last autumn confirmed the French capital’s unique claim on this stupendously creative painter, sculptor and poet. His genius is so tangled up with the streets and garrets, palaces and attics of Paris, a city that he first visited in 1900 and whose artistic life he would take to new heights.

Picasso never forgot Spain, but he needed Paris to become a great artist. In 1900, the French capital was already crawling with modernists. The young Picasso emulated the raw nightlife scenes of Toulouse-Lautrec, and soon became fascinated by the art of Degas, Van Gogh and, most of all, Cézanne. Picasso’s “rose” period echoes the late works of Degas while Cézanne is the god of cubism. Picasso was eventually rich enough to buy a chateau at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, thus owning, he boasted, the view his hero Cézanne had painted. He is buried there.

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