Artistic Influences on Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon

Artists, paintings and movements that influenced Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The two leading rival modern artists of early 20th century Paris were Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Because photography and film were by now established ways of reproducing reality, both men sensed that painting, if it was to stay relevant, had to develop different ways of representing the world.

Under the influence of non-European art, artists that the two admired such as Paul Cezanne and contemporary events within the society in which both lived, the solutions that they found in the early 1900s to move painting forward were radically different. Matisse found the joy of vivid colour, Picasso conflict and form.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), painted in the Bateau Lavoir studio in 1907,  is a decisive break with the established, realistic, representative artistic tradition. The radical style and composition of the work means that it is widely recognised as modern art’s first painting

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon)

The painting fast tracks all of the artistic innovations that had been slowly developing, pushing them onto a crowded, cramped surface. Picasso ditches artistic convention. In a sweeping blow Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resumes, synthesises and severs connections with recent 19th and early 20th century artistic explorations. It decisively projects painting towards non-naturalistic modern art.

Picasso’s new representational framework

Picasso’s subject is five prostitutes, they pose and get in each other’s way in front of some curtains. The women’s presence is brilliantly suggested but they are not represented in any normal way. He uses angular geometric forms to depict their bodies and pink, orange and purple areas of colour for their skin. The girls are one-dimensional and volumeless. Everything is just shoved up front on the cramped flat canvas.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) 1907, by Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s subject is five prostitutes. They pose on front of some curtains. He uses flat angular shapes to indicate the women’s bodies. Two of the figures to the right are portrayed with primitive mask like features and the figure entering from the left has an eye as though seen facing us whilst her head is in fact in profile. There appears to be discord among the girls whilst a mixture of resentment, confrontation and blank resignation are directed towards the viewer by the figures.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) 1907, by Pablo Picasso. The European colonial project was quick to brand the artistic and religious artefacts it came into contact with as ‘primitive’. Picasso harnesses the raw power of primitive art to reveal the hypocrisy of modern ‘civilised’ society.

Two of the figures to the right are portrayed with primitive mask-like features. The figure entering from the left has an eye as though seen facing us whilst her head is in fact in profile. It looks as though the two women on the edges are in conflict whilst another—who is also possibly arguing with the figure who has just appeared through the curtain—swivels around to angrily confront the viewer. The two who are posing stare out at us in blank resignation.

The girls almost spill into the viewer’s space

There is no depth behind the models and little sense of foreground or background because Picasso has purposefully abandoned perspective. The only space for the girls appears to be somewhere between where they are posing and out of the frame into the viewer’s space. They stare out at the viewer and almost push us back.

Interpretations of the Demoiselles d’Avignon

The second figure from the left resembles the young Picasso. With this ‘autoportrait’ could he be pointing out a tenuous link between artist and sex worker? The artist also exists in a market hoping to catch the eye of a dealer or collector.

Critics and art historians have tended to see the aggressive attitude and distorted mask faces of some of the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as being linked to Picasso’s fear of catching syphilis when he visited prostitutes in Paris. There was no known cure for Syphilis in 1907; it remained a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. Picasso, the argument goes, was said to be indifferent to the condition of the prostitutes. The conflictual attitudes of the women, their grotesque masks, is a reflection of his own mixed feelings of desire, repulsion and misogyny.

The point of departure for Cubism

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is also often associated with Cubism. The geometric forms of the picture open the door to Cubism. Cubism was a slightly later development which Picasso developed whilst working in close partnership with the French artist Georges Braque. Please see the Cubism page in the lower Montmartre – Pigalle walk.

The dynamism of primitive art

Primitive art forms, especially African sculptures and masks, had a huge influence on Picasso and Matisse. France was one of a number of European countries developing their colonial empires at this time. The European colonial project was quick to brand the artistic and religious artifacts it came into contact with as primitive.

Artists saw something different in non-European art; they immediately recognised a dynamism and power, expressed through an angular visual language that had nothing to do with the refined and rule-bound western European artistic tradition. In primitive artifacts the human form was often schematised to a block and the face represented by a series of simple often expressionless lines.

Taking away classical representation and replacing it with streamlined, anthropomorphic forms, seemed to concentrate the coherence and force of expression of the work of art.

Picasso’s style and subject matter was influenced by African masks and pre-classical art

Picasso also had the opportunity to closely study, in his studio, two antique stone statue heads. These were from the Iberian peninsula and dated from the period before the Roman invasion.

The encounter with the compacted, contained, latent energy of Primitive art by artists ready to explore and develop different modes of expression in painting is critical for the development of modern art.

To Picasso and Matisse it was the key to the future they were looking for.

In the Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso engages with Primitive art to show some of the darker currents running under the surface of modern civilised society.

He chooses to show prostitutes and the socially accepted subject of female sexual slavery by abandoning the classical language of painting. The women are portrayed in a raw and powerful new way.

The prostitutes’ blank and aggressive expressions staring out from the canvas should prompt us to look within. Are not obscure and primitive forces also present in our own modern society?

The masks can be seen as a symbol of the objectification that the girls have been victim of. They have become dehumanised; sex objects available for a price. More optimistically, the masks could be interpreted as their device for self-preservation; to distance the real self from the role they play in society and perhaps to harness primitive power and escape their condition.

The Demoiselles d’Avignon stayed in the Bateau Lavoir studio for many years but was widely seen by visiting artists and dealers. A shock wave slowly resonated out to the art world.

Further influences on Picasso : social unrest 1906 – 1907 and the Courrières mining disaster

The French economy, by comparison to other major European powers at the time such as the UK or Germany, was not highly industrially developed.

There were exceptions such as steel making and mining which required a large, concentrated workforce. Here unions developed and the push for social justice often took the form of strike action.

The Courrières mining disaster

1906 was particularly turbulent. In March of that year a terrible mining disaster hit the town of Courrières in northern France. There was an explosion with catastrophic loss of life; 1099 men died making it the worst ever European mining accident.

Lithographic impressions of the disaster appeared immediately in the newspapers and later photographic postcards of the scene were widely circulated.

The popular press had huge circulation at the time. images of the disaster would have been omnipresent in 1906, just one year before the appearance of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

The event set off a series of strikes and social unrest. George Clemenceau—later to be France’s president—was the Minister of the Interior. He feared a worker’s uprising. For the annual May Day demonstration of 1906, he mobilised 60 000 troops and police to keep order in the capital.

Did images from Courrières find echoes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?

One of the images shows wooden pit supports jaggedly hanging into the mine in the aftermath of the explosion. The sharp angles of the girls’ elbows in the painting and the orientation of their arms perhaps retrace the diagonals of the shattered pit props.

The curtains through which two of the women enter the scene and against which two others pose look like ice, earth or stone.

In the painting the space is cramped, as in the confines of a mine, with no depth, there is little room for the figures; the proximity generates tension.

The face of the figure entering from the left is dark as though covered in coal dust whilst the rest of her body is pink.

Disaster, conflict, change, justice !

Picasso was able to rapidly absorb and transform what he saw and felt, reinterpreting his experience in a new personal way of painting. From the numbers of preparatory sketches that survive we can see that Picasso thought long and hard about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon before fixing on its final form. He would have taken into account the strikes and social unrest of 1906 which continued into 1907.

Is it perhaps possible that he identified some points of correspondence between the fate of the men killed in the mine and the women trapped in prostitution? Workers were demonstrating and striking for basic work conditions and pay—some called for revolution—is it also possible to take an optimistic view and see the beginnings of an eventual way out for those women in the defiant and confrontational posture that some of them display?

Which artists influenced Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon ?

The principal artists who influenced Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon are : El Greco, The Vision of St John, Paul Cézanne, The Three Bathers and The Five Bathers, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse.

El Greco (1541 – 1614)

El Greco was a Greek painter who in his career had absorbed Venetian colour and Roman Mannerism. He eventually established himself in Toledo, an ancient city that had known Roman, Visigothic, Arab and Jewish culture. Toledo was the Spanish Empire’s capital and in El Greco’s time became the spiritual and mystical heart of Catholic Spain.

El Greco’s paintings help recreate the visceral intensity and transformative effect of the mystical experience. The Vision of St John does not portray a lifelike scene but searches to reveal a particular psychological state. El Greco connects religious ecstasy with Venetian colour and the technical virtuosity of Mannerism. The result is restless, twisting energy and lurid colour.

The transformative effect of the mystical experience: The Vision of St John

El Greco: The Vision of St John. An elongated twisting figure of St John reaches up to receive robes from a stormy sky. Several naked figures behind are also receiving robes from angels. The scene is described in the Book of Revelations in The Bible. The colours are vivid, lurid and unreal and help convey the intensity of the mystical experience.
El Greco: The Vision of St John (1608 – 14). Mannerism and mysticism.

El Greco’s Vision of St. John is a late highly-charged work. Here the scene is from the book of Revelations in the Bible. It is the end of time when those who have died for the work of Christ will be given robes. The clothes and the angels bearing them are seen tumbling from the sky.

St John and the other figures in the background writhe, twist and coil in a typically Mannerist way. The colours are vivid, and unreal. The figures stretch skywards. The clouds, hovering like ghosts, are lit up by electric pulses and darting flecks of light. The monumental and out- of-proportion St John dominates the left foreground of the picture. All seem in danger of being drawn away from earth towards a turbulent and sombre sky.

St John’s body is impossibly elongated and only really hinted at behind the folds of the robes which seem to crackle with divine light. El Greco portrays an event from another dimension; in this mystical tornado human anatomy is stretched and transformed like plasticine and normal representative rules do not apply.

There is a claustrophobic intensity and immediacy to The Vision of St John. The emphasis on the psychological drama of revelation at the expense of traditional physical representation, perspective and landscape setting appears strikingly modern.

Picasso studies The Vision of St John in Paris

It was this astonishing picture that Picasso saw in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. The Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga had bought the painting in Spain and brought it to his studio in Paris. This gave Picasso the chance to study it in detail.

Picasso would have no doubt noted the striking expressive possibilities of non-naturalistic twisting elongated figures. He would have seen how El Greco adapted scale and perspective to his own ends. He would have felt the intensity and claustrophobic framing of the picture.

He would have noted the dramatic frieze of nude almost monochromatic figures in the background, who are also straining to reach for their robes from the tumbling angels. The figures complemented St John and helped spread the energy of the moment right across the canvas.

The billowing robes in the Vision of St John find an echo in Picasso in the curtains against which the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon pose.

Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)

Cézanne, in his mature period, reduced the naturalism and materialism of what he represented to a set of interlocking geometric forms. He reinterpreted one of the artist’s main problems: how to represent what is perceived in three dimensions on a flat canvas with paint.

A harmony parallel to nature

His answer is colour and complementary form. Cézanne said that “art is a harmony parallel to nature”. By this he surely meant that it was not enough to try to mirror nature as in the academic tradition. It was not enough to register in paint accurately what was seen. It was up to the artist to develop his own visual language. Cézanne did this by invoking the permanence and order of nature and landscape whilst also suggesting its constant mutation.

Paul Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte Victoire with large Pine. The mountain which Cézanne painted many times appears in the distance. The distance is suggested by greys and blues. The peak of the mountain is framed by two animated pine branches. In the middle ground we see green fields, scattered farms and a railway viaduct. The Mont Saint Victoire series is Cézanne’s homage to his native Provence.

Paul Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte Victoire with large Pine. Cézanne’s homage to and meditation on the landscape of his native Provence. He painted the scene many times.

Reducing visual clutter, finding harmony

Cézanne imposed order on his still life paintings and to his studies of nature by reducing unnecessary clutter.

Equilibrium is found through complementary masses. Each element is balanced and introduced into a visually harmonious conversation. The resulting counterpoint or echo helps to set up hypnotic visual resonance.

Cézanne often integrated different viewpoints or perspectives into the finished work, as though searching for the right balance, his harmony.

The result is a decisive move away from imitation and naturalism towards a more schematic recreation of scene and colour.

This constructed artistic order contrasts sharply with the personal self-doubt, social insecurity, artistic rejection and restlessness that Cézanne felt for most of his life.

Cézanne’s spatial observations, the way he synthesises perspective and imposes control with complementing geometrical shapes means that he is considered the forerunner of Cubism. Picasso described Cézanne as “the father of us all”.

Cézanne’s bather figures and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Figures in Cézanne’s female bathers pictures, The Three Bathers and The Five Bathers, find close echoes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. From The Three Bathers painting very close similarities have been noted between the two sitting figures on the right.

From The Five Bathers painting two figures show similarities: the hefty figure who thunders in from the left has an echo in the first from left figure in the Picasso. The more demure figure drying herself in the background from Cézanne has similarities with the figure second from the left in the Picasso posing with a raised arm.

We may also note the quarrelsome and irritable attitude of some of the women in The Five Bathers. That irritability is escalated to confrontation with Picasso.

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)

Paul Gauguin moved away from the realism of Impressionism towards the more subjective emotion and idea driven representations that became known as Symbolism. Symbolism allowed the artist not to represent reality but to suggest more personal constructs of meaning and emotion. The colours and composition were supposed to help evoke similar feelings in the viewer.

Gauguin, who was impressed and influenced by the primitive art brought back to Paris by colonial activity in Africa and Oceania, decided that his art would benefit if he experienced a less developed society. He went to Tahiti to seek paradise and to be close to nature.

Gauguin worked in various mediums; his expressive highly coloured simplified stylei influenced Picasso, Matisse and German Expressionism.

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

Did Matisse influence Picasso’s The Demoiselles d’Avignon?

In the years prior to the unveiling of the Demoiselles d’Avignon Matisse produced two idealised sun-drenched masterpieces. Their classical references and idyllic optimism may have helped to push Picasso to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of his choice of subject matter, setting and mood.

Matisse: Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury Calm and Pleasure) 1904

One year before the famous 1905 Fauves exhibition, Matisse had travelled to St Tropez to spend time painting and discussing with the Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac.

Signac tried to instruct Matisse on the painstaking pointillist technique where the painting is built up from dots of paint. Whether through lack of patience or simply because he was not convinced by the theory, Matisse—whilst paying lip service to the divisionist theory— developed his own style.

He reacted to the intensity of the Mediterranean light and the unspoiled beauty of the Cote d’Azur in a startlingly energetic and modern way.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury Calm and Pleasure) a painting in the Neo-Impressionist style from 1904 by Henri Matisse. Four nude female figures dry and comb their hair in a Mediterranean seaside landscape. Restless dashes and jabs of paint suggest the brilliant sunlight and help us recreate it.
Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury Calm and Pleasure), Henri Matisse 1904. An invitation to travel into the future of painting.

Matisse called his painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure). It is a line taken from the poem ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’ (‘Invitation to Travel’) by Charles Beaudelaire. In the poem the male narrator invites his lover to travel with him to an unspoiled paradise where they would enjoy a life of pleasure in an ideal climate whilst, presumably, remaining forever young.

The poem evoked the Côte d’Azur for Matisse.

Matisse drawing attention to the excitement of primary colour

Instead of using dots—as in the pointillist technique, Matisse jabs on flecks of colour. These larger dashes mean that our eye is actually drawn to the vivid saturated primary colours: oranges, reds, yellows, blues and purples.

These colours congeal into areas of humming excitement as they settle on figures, the sea, the landscape, the tree, the boat and a cloud.

Making blobs larger and bolder draws attention to the process of creating an image. The saturated colour also imparts something of the unique excitement of witnessing the beauty of the scene.

Matisse is inviting us to share his enthusiasm; it is expressed in these buzzing juxtaposed colours.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a picture whose subject is conventional: a reflection on the beauty of nature and the pleasure of contemplating nude female form within that setting.

The technique however is very modern: the figures are merely suggested, their almost abstract features are indicated by fluid sweeping lines and halos of colour. The restless dashes and jabs of paint suggest the scene and help us recreate it. The vibrant tones communicate the atmosphere and ‘invites us to travel’ forward, into the future of painting.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté can be seen in Paris in the Pompidou Centre.

Matisse II: Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) 1906

Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) is his next great leap forward. In this painting he revisits themes he had explored in Luxe, Calme et Volupté. This time the figures are set in a polychrome Fauvist landscape.

Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) by Henri Matisse 1906. Nude figures pose, dance, embrace, play music and pick flowers in an idealised outdoor setting. The figures evoke a classical or Golden Age past. The canvas bathes in thrilling primary colour. All the details: figures, trees, horizon are schematised and simplified.
Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) by Henri Matisse 1906. A 20th century vision of paradise.

In the Joy of Life the figures have a sense of purpose: they pose, dance, embrace, play music and pick flowers in an idealised outdoor setting. Even the reclining figures project twisting, lithe, natural, healthy energy. Even the trees take part as they sway and echo the dark outlining of the two amazon-like figures in the centre of the painting.

The scene is not realistic. Traditional perspective between figures is not respected. We seem to be seeing the figures from different viewpoints at the same time. It is almost as though we too are walking around this enchanted forest.

The canvas bathes in thrilling saturated Fauvist colour. All details: figures, trees, horizon are Schematised and, made more simple.

Matisse, like Picasso, was interested in the expressive possibilities of non-naturalistic ‘Primitive’ art. We can see that influence here as the nudes are reduced to a series of flowing lines with little modelling on the body whilst the faces and expressions are suggested by some simple lines.

The scene is stripped down to an explosion of vivid pools of joyful, pure, colour. These carry excitement which energises the viewer. Whatever narrative thread there is is lost as the eye is overwhelmed. The colour reminds us of the exhilaration of the conscious experience of being in the world.

This is a 20th century vision of paradise with allusions to a lost Golden Age past. It also incorporates primitive notions of connecting with the energy of nature whilst living in harmony with it.

Matisse’s Golden Age paradise and Picasso’s prostitutes

Critics have argued that the revolutionary final form of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon owes much to the feel-good factor associated with Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) which appeared in 1906.

The Steins—sister and brother Gertrude and Leo Stein were rich Americans settled in Paris who had collectors eyes for the emerging Parisian modern art market— bought Matisse’s painting and hung it in their apartment.

The evenings hosted by the Steins became the meeting point for many contemporary artists. Picasso was by this time friendly with Gertrude Stein. He had painted her portrait in the Bateau Lavoir in 1906 after many sittings.

It was as an invited guest to Gertrude Stein’s apartment that Picasso first saw Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre. It was hanging on the wall beside Picasso’s own portrait of his enlightened patron.

As a response to Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre

Picasso was highly competitive and Matisse was now his rival. He and Matisse were vying to become the most recognised and original modern artist of the day.

Art historians have seen the radical, gritty and unsettling style of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a reaction to Matisse’s sensual and optimistic masterpiece.

The infographic, Picasso’s vision shows some of the artists and paintings influential in the conception of the work. The diagram also draws attention to the existence of a series of small supporting networks: galleries, buyers, writers, friends, critics which allowed the work to emerge.

Infographic in the form of linked circles giving brief details of artists and paintings influential in the final composition of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. The colour scheme reflects the palette of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon
Infographic showing principal artists, paintings, influencers and amplifiers considered important for final form of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.


All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5).

All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

(1)El Greco artist QS:P170,Q301, El Greco, The Vision of Saint John (1608-1614), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2)Paul Cézanne artist QS:P170,Q35548, Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, by Paul Cézanne, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3) Henri Matisse, Matisse-Luxe, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons By <a href="//" title="Henri Matisse">Henri Matisse</a> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href=""></a>, 1 January 2008, PD-US, Link
(4) Henri Matisse, Bonheur Matisse, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons 
By <a href="//" title="Henri Matisse">Henri Matisse</a> - Image URL:<a rel="nofollow" class="external free" href=""></a>See too <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href=";rNo=2">The Barnes Foundation 2014 photograph</a>, PD-US, Link
(5) Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons By <a href="//" title="Pablo Picasso">Pablo Picasso</a> - Museum of Modern Art, New York, PD-US, Link