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1. Learning to paint

Picasso received solid academic training under the supervision of his father, a drawing teacher. His education began in Málaga and continued in La Coruña, Barcelona and briefly in Madrid. Drawn by its avant-garde climate, he moved to Paris in 1904. 

“An odd thing, he adds, is that I have never done children’s drawings. Never. Even when I was very small.”
Hélène Parmelin. Picasso Says…, 1969, p. 73

Portrait of Lola

La Coruña, 1 December 1894 | Oil on canvas, 29 x 19 cm
Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte. On temporary deposit at the Museo Picasso Málaga
© FABA. Photo: Eric Baudouin © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2017

Read about Portrait of Lola

Pablo Picasso was 13 years old in 1894, the year he painted this portrait of his sister María Dolores Ruiz Picasso, fondly known as Lola. The sophistication of Picasso’s first works, evident in details from the wisp of hair passing from behind the ear over the bonnet to the sombre cast of Lola’s mouth, invite viewers to search for signs of the artist’s later works, either in style or subject. To some extent, this is a sort of art historical divination, in which, as Pierre Daix wrote, ‘we suppose him to have had from the first all the creative virtues which more than 70 years of activity and reflections devoted only to his art have enabled us to perceive.’ However, in 1894, Pablo was not yet ‘Picasso’, as the signature daubed thickly in the top left corner attests: ‘P. Ruiz’ shows the artist taking the first surname of his father, José Ruiz Blasco, a painter himself, who had encouraged his son’s talent from a young age. 

The portrait of Lola was completed in A Coruña, the city where Picasso’s family had moved to in 1891 when his father found work there as an art professor. The following year, when the family went to live in Barcelona, Picasso continued his academic training in painting, enrolling in the La Llotja art school in 1895. While he would only encounter the works of Zurbarán and Ribera during a trip to Madrid in 1895, their tenebrous palettes suffuse Picasso’s portrait of Lola – likely through the instruction of his father. In the years that followed, which took Picasso from Barcelona to Madrid and Paris (which he visited for the first time in October 1900), he painted several portraits of Lola that make it possible to trace the artist’s progress from his academic training through a series of styles from Symbolism to Post-Impressionism.

In 1899–1900 Picasso returned to the subject of Lola in a series of portraits – notably the charcoal and blue and red pencil on paper Lola, the Artist’s Sister (Museu Picasso, Barcelona) and the oil painting The Artist’s Sister Lola (Cleveland Museum of Art) – signed ‘P. Ruiz Picasso’. These works, in which his 15-year-old sister stares fiercely out at the viewer, often dressed as a maja in a Spanish mantilla with a rose in her hair, portray Lola through the lens of the late Symbolist painting dominant in the cafe culture of Barcelona, with its hints of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Édouard Vuillard’s darkest moments. As Picasso makes over his sister into a denizen of Barcelona bohemia, he also transfigures himself: no longer a ‘child prodigy’ with a natural grasp of academic norms, but a radical artist devoted to their subversion. 

Text: Trevor Stark