On this day in 1916, Pablo Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, or The Young Ladies of Avignon, an oil painting portraying five nude prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona, ignited a furor when it was first exhibited in Paris.
Picasso had in fact painted the canvas years earlier in Paris in 1907, after creating hundreds of sketches and studies in preparation for the final work. After he had completed it, the painting remained in his studio for many years, with only his most intimate circle of artists, dealers, collectors, and friends aware of the work.
The painting originally depicted three prostitutes with sharp Iberian features and two men—one a patron and the other a medical student holding a skull—in a brothel. In the final painting, the men are gone, replaced by two more women in primitive masks. The figures are arranged in provocative, revealing stances, almost aggressive or threatening, perhaps designed to inspire unease. Some have described the painting as a battleground, with the Iberian prostitutes on the left clashing with the hideous masked creatures on the right. In a stark departure from the style of the time, the three-dimensional scene is painted using a two-dimensional picture plane, sharp-edged and angular, sure to further upset audiences used to the more soft and realistic depictions of traditional European painting.
On 16 July 1916, Les demoiselles d’Avignon was exhibited in public for the first time when it was included in the Salon d’Antin, an exhibition organised by Picasso’s friend and art critic Andre Salmon. The painting, originally titled Le Bordel d’Avignon, or The Brothel of Avignon, was retitled Les demoiselles d’Avignon by Salmon to lessen the scandalous nature of the work. Nonetheless, the Paris art scene was almost unanimously repulsed by the 95-centimetre-square canvas. Fellow painters, patrons, and critics descended on Paris to view the scandalous painting, expressing shock, distaste, and outrage at a work they considered immoral, vulgar, and crude. The painter Matisse, with whom Picasso had a fierce rivalry, was angered by the painting and considered it a hoax. The painter Derian said of it, “One day we shall find Pablo has hanged himself behind his great canvas.”
The painting was ill-received not only for its stark depiction of prostitutes in the nude, but also for what it represented: a rejection of middle-class society and traditional values of the time and an acceptance of sexual freedom. Furthermore, with Les demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso turned his back on popular modes of painting at the time in favour of line-drawing, two-dimensionalism, and primitive styling. That decision proved to be a seminal one, as Les demoiselles d’Avignon helped plant the seeds for cubism and modern art.
As for the painting, after its disappointing exhibition, it lay rolled up and forgotten in Picasso’s studio for years before Jacques Doucet bought it in the early 1920s. Today it is part of a prized collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Caption: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon provoked a scandal when first exhibited.