Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso's African Period Unfolded

Pablo Picasso's African-Influenced Period, spanning from 1907 to 1909, stands as a pivotal chapter in the storied career of this iconic artist. Often referred to simply as his African Period, these years marked a significant turning point in Picasso's artistic development, profoundly influencing the evolution of modern art and paving the way for the emergence of Cubism. This era is distinguished by a dramatic shift in both his stylistic approach and thematic focus, as seen in the paintings from this period. They not only reflect Picasso's relentless innovation but also his deep engagement with African art, which played a crucial role in shaping his artistic vision.

During the African Period, Picasso's work underwent a radical transformation in terms of figure representation and form. Moving away from the traditional, naturalistic portrayal that had long dominated European art, he embraced a more geometric and abstract approach. This deconstruction of form is a hallmark of Picasso's paintings from this period, where figures are broken down into angular, simplified shapes. This stylistic evolution was heavily influenced by the aesthetics of African art, particularly its use of abstraction and stylization. These changes in Picasso's art were not just about adopting a new visual language; they represented a deeper exploration of form and perspective, laying the groundwork for the revolutionary art movement of Cubism.

Bust of a Nude Woman

Bust of Nude Woman 1907 

The color theory employed by Picasso during his African Period also underwent a significant shift. Moving away from the vivid hues of his Rose Period and the somber blues of his Blue Period, Picasso adopted a more subdued, earthy palette in his African Period paintings. This choice of colors, dominated by muted browns, ochres, and grays, was likely inspired by the natural pigments and materials prevalent in African art. This restrained use of color was strategic, serving to highlight the geometric abstraction and the fragmented forms in his work. By focusing on a more limited color range, Picasso ensured that the viewer's attention was drawn to the radical restructuring of form and space, a key aspect of his artistic exploration during this period.

Impact of African Artifacts:

  • The African masks and sculptures Picasso saw at the Trocadéro were characterized by their stark simplicity and powerful forms. These objects, which were deeply rooted in spiritual and social functions within their native cultures, possessed a raw, unfiltered aesthetic power that was vastly different from the refined, realistic art of Europe at the time.

Nude Female

Nu à la serviette 1907

  • The masks, in particular, with their exaggerated features, abstract shapes, and stark contrasts, challenged Picasso's understanding of portraiture and representation. They were not mere physical likenesses but were imbued with a deeper, more symbolic essence that captured the spirit or character of their subjects.

Simplification, Abstraction, and Stylization:

  • African art's emphasis on simplification and abstraction was a revelation to Pablo Picasso. Instead of focusing on realistic, detailed representations, African artists distilled figures and objects to their essential forms and geometric shapes. This approach resonated with Picasso, who was already moving away from the traditional realism of European art.

Three Nude Women

Three Women, 1907-8 Hermitage Museum

  • The stylization in African art, where artists would often emphasize certain features or aspects of a subject for symbolic or aesthetic reasons, also influenced Picasso. This can be seen in how he began to manipulate and exaggerate features in his own work, playing with proportions and perspectives to convey deeper emotional and conceptual meanings.

A New Approach to Form and Representation:

  • The encounter with African art led Picasso to reevaluate his approach to form and representation in his own work. He began to experiment more boldly with deconstructing and reconstructing forms, leading to the fragmented and faceted figures characteristic of his African Period and later Cubism.

Portrait of Picasso

Self Portrait 1906

  • This period marked a departure from the illusion of three-dimensional space and perspective that had dominated European painting. Instead, Picasso started to represent figures as a composite of multiple viewpoints, breaking down the conventional boundaries between two and three-dimensional representation.

Characteristics of the African Period:

  • During this period, Picasso's works are characterized by simplified, geometric forms, and angular, disjointed figures. This was a significant departure from the traditional European approach to form and perspective.

  • There was a noticeable shift in his use of color as well. The palette became more subdued, dominated by browns, grays, and ochres, reflecting the earthy tones often found in African art.

Influence of African Art:

  • The earthy tones prevalent in African sculptures and masks, derived from natural materials and pigments, resonated with Picasso. These colors were fundamentally different from the bright hues and pastels he used in his previous Rose and Blue periods. By adopting a similar palette, Picasso was not only paying homage to African art but also aligning his work more closely with the aesthetics and spirit of these artworks.

    Dancing Woman
    Dance of the Veils 1907 Hermitage Museum
    1. Focus on Form and Structure:

      • Picasso's primary interest during this period was in exploring and deconstructing form. By using a more muted color palette, he could ensure that the viewer's attention was focused on the structure and geometry of the figures, rather than being distracted by a wide array of colors. This emphasis on form over color was a crucial step in the development of Cubism, where the analysis of form and space became paramount.

    2. Symbolic and Emotional Resonance:

      • The choice of earthy, muted tones may also have had symbolic and emotional significance for Picasso. These colors could be seen as representing a return to the basics or fundamentals, both in art and in human experience. They evoke a sense of rawness and primality, aligning with the themes of basic human existence and emotion that Picasso was exploring in his work at the time.

    Two Nude Men
    Friendship 1908 Hermitage Museum
    1. Artistic Experimentation:

      • Picasso was in a constant state of artistic evolution and experimentation. His shift to a more subdued palette during the African-Influenced Period can be seen as part of this ongoing exploration. He was always willing to challenge conventional aesthetics and push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable or beautiful in art.

    2. Response to European Art Traditions:

      • This shift in color palette can also be interpreted as a response, or even a challenge, to the traditional European art of the time, which often favored more vivid and realistic color schemes. By choosing a palette that was starkly different, Picasso was making a statement about breaking away from these traditions and forging a new path in modern art.

      Most Famous Work "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"

      Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

      Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

        Subject and Composition: 


        The painting features five nude female figures, depicted in a raw and unidealized manner. This in itself was a bold move, as female nudes in art were traditionally portrayed in a more graceful and idealized fashion.

        The composition is strikingly unconventional. The figures are not arranged in a harmonious or balanced way but are instead presented in a confrontational manner, directly engaging with the viewer. This breaks from the traditional passive portrayal of subjects, especially female nudes, in art.

          Influence of Iberian Sculpture and African Masks:
            The faces of the figures are one of the most striking aspects of the painting. Two of the figures on the right have faces inspired by African masks, while the others show the influence of Iberian sculpture. This fusion of influences was groundbreaking, introducing elements of non-Western art into a Western painting.

              The mask-like faces add to the painting's sense of confrontation and intensity. They also represent a significant departure from the realistic portrayal of human features, moving towards abstraction and stylization.

              Green Pan and Black Bottle

              Green Pan and Black Bottle 1908 Hermitage Museum


                Break from Traditional Perspective:


                Picasso abandons the traditional single-viewpoint perspective in this painting. Instead, he presents multiple perspectives simultaneously. This approach breaks down the conventional boundaries of space and form in painting, allowing the viewer to see the figures from various angles and viewpoints.

                House in a garden

                House in a Garden 1908 Hermitage Museum

                This fragmentation of perspective was radical and is seen as a direct precursor to the development of Cubism, where multiple perspectives and the breakdown of form became key principles.

                  Portrayal of the Human Form:

                  The human form in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is portrayed in a stark and angular manner, far removed from the soft, curvilinear forms typical of the time. This portrayal aligns with the geometric simplification seen in African art and was a significant move away from traditional European painting styles.

                  The figures are both powerful and unsettling, challenging the viewer's expectations and comfort levels. This stark portrayal was a deliberate move by Picasso to provoke and confront, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in art.

                   Portrait of a man with mustache

                  Portrait of Manuel Pallares 1909 Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

                  • Impact on Cubism:

                    • The African Period is often seen as a bridge between Picasso's earlier work and his development of Cubism, which he co-founded with Georges Braque.

                    • The simplified geometric forms, the reduction of figures to a collection of disjointed planes, and the emphasis on a more conceptual representation of reality in his African-Influenced works can be seen as precursors to Cubist ideas.

                  • Controversy and Legacy:

                    • Picasso's use of African motifs and his appropriation of elements from non-Western art have been subjects of controversy, particularly in discussions about cultural appropriation and the representation of non-Western cultures in Western art.

                    • Despite these controversies, the African Period is credited with introducing a new visual language to European art and challenging established conventions of representation, thus playing a pivotal role in the development of modern art.

                  Top Picasso Paintings from African Period

                  "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) - Perhaps the most famous work from this period, this painting is known for its radical departure from traditional European painting, featuring elements inspired by African art.

                  1. "Buste de Femme (Femme aux Cheveux Jaunes)" (1907) - This painting shows a marked departure from naturalistic representation, with the subject's face resembling the angular features of African masks.

                  2. "Nu à la serviette" (1907) - A work that shows the transition in Picasso's style with simplified forms and a move towards abstraction.

                  3. "Three Women" (1907-1908) - This painting shows a clear African influence in the mask-like faces of the figures.

                  4. "Femme nue assise" (1907-1908) - A study in form reduction and abstraction, indicative of the influence of African sculpture.

                  5. "Danseuse" (1907) - Reflecting the stylized and simplified forms characteristic of African art.

                  6. "Femme aux Bras Croisés" (1907) - The figure in this painting is depicted with a mask-like face and a simplified body, showing the influence of African sculpture.

                  7. "La Toilette" (1906-1907) - While at the cusp of his African Period, this work shows the beginnings of his exploration into simplified forms.

                  8. "Nature morte à la chaise et aux glaïeuls" (1907) - A still life that incorporates elements of his developing style.

                  9. "Buste d'homme" (1907-1908) - A work that shows the abstraction and geometric simplification of the human form.

                  10. "Tête de femme (Fernande)" (1909) - Reflecting a blend of Iberian and African influences.

                  11. "Jeune fille aux pieds nus" (1907) - Exhibiting a simplicity and directness influenced by African art.

                  12. "Standing Female Nude" (1907) - Shows the elongation and abstraction of the figure.

                  13. "Femme assise dans un fauteuil" (1907) - The figure in this painting is depicted in a simplified, almost sculptural manner.

                  14. "La Danse" (1907) - Although less directly influenced by African art, this painting shows the simplification of form characteristic of this period.


                  As we conclude our exploration of Pablo Picasso's African-influenced period, it's clear that this brief yet intensely creative phase of his career from 1907 to 1909 was more than just a transitional period; it was a revolutionary redefinition of modern art. Picasso's foray into the aesthetics of African art, marked by a profound shift in form, perspective, and color, not only reshaped his own artistic direction but also left an indelible impact on the trajectory of 20th-century art.

                  The African Period stands out for its bold experimentation with form and structure. Picasso's encounter with African art led to a radical departure from traditional European approaches to representation. The geometric simplification, the abstracted figures, and the mask-like faces seen in his works from this period challenged the prevailing norms of art and opened up new possibilities for expression. This was not just an aesthetic evolution but a conceptual revolution, where the essence of a subject was captured not through realistic portrayal but through a more abstract, symbolic form.

                  Moreover, Picasso's use of a subdued, earthy color palette during this period further emphasized the structural elements of his work, allowing the forms and figures to take center stage. This strategic use of color underscores his shift in focus from the representational to the structural, a move that would eventually culminate in the development of Cubism.

                  "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" stands as the epitome of this period, encapsulating the essence of Picasso's stylistic and philosophical transformation. This painting not only broke away from the artistic conventions of its time but also paved the way for future avant-garde movements. The fragmented perspectives, the bold rejection of traditional three-dimensional space, and the incorporation of non-Western artistic influences in this masterpiece laid the groundwork for the multifaceted, complex nature of modern art.

                  In retrospect, Picasso's African-Influenced Period was a pivotal moment in art history. It was a time of profound change, where the boundaries of art were expanded, and new realms of creative expression were unveiled. Picasso's works from this period continue to inspire and challenge, reminding us of the power of art to transcend cultural boundaries and redefine our understanding of beauty and form. As we look back on this remarkable period in Picasso's career, we are reminded of the enduring nature of artistic innovation and the timeless impact of breaking with tradition to explore uncharted territories of creativity.

                  Back to blog