The Artist Evolves in the Guggenheim’s ‘Young Picasso in Paris’

The ville lumière left an indelible impression on the artist that inspired a career marked by repeated transformations.

A colorful painting of a crowded dancehall full of well-dressed patrons lit by glowing electric lights.
The exhibition highlights a defining work, Le Moulin de la Galette (ca. November 1900). Photograph by David Heald, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

A precocious Pablo Picasso, then still relatively unknown, arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1900 at the age of nineteen. The city’s major art fair, the Exposition Universelle, was in full swing, and the young artist had traveled to Paris with a friend, Carlos Casagemas—ostensibly to cover the event for the Barcelona journal Catalunya Artistica. But one of Picasso’s own works—a painting entitled Last Moments that was eventually overpainted with La Vie in 1903—hung in the Spanish pavilion in the Grand Palais, and his motives for journeying to the ville lumière included establishing his reputation in the Parisian art world.

A rough yet striking charcoal sketch, La sortie de l’Exposition Universelle, Paris, shows him exiting the art fair with girlfriend Odette (Louise Lenoir); Casagemas; and friends Ramon Pichot, Miguel Utrillo and Germaine Gargallo.

A charcoal and colored pencil drawing of stylized figures leaving a venue.
Picasso and friends leaving the Exposition Universelle. 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The diversity, spectacle and cultural energy of Paris captivated Picasso and had a quantifiably transformative impact on his subsequent output. The artist’s work, writes Enrique Mallen in the journal Arts, “seems to have undergone an evolution that took it from light to shade, from the early vivid polychrome to the later nocturnal hues, from the vibrant, sun-lit bullfight scenes, with their dashes of different pastel tones intended to give movement and local color to the event, to the dark, almost saturated, areas of pastel used to convey the underside of life that he observed in the French capital.”

Young Picasso in Paris, which opens at the Guggenheim on May 12 and coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s death, is an intimate exhibition exploring Picasso’s creative evolution over a single pivotal year. The ten paintings and works on paper selected by curator Megan Fontanella were inspired by everything the artist encountered and experienced in the bohemian city’s museums, galleries, cafes and nightclubs—first during his initial visit in the fall of 1900 for the Exposition Universelle and then during a longer eight-month stay in 1901.

A colorful oil pastel drawing of a busy Parisian city scene.
The Fourteenth of July (Le quatorze juillet), Paris, 1901. Photograph by David Heald, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The exhibition, which is part of the museum’s Picasso Celebration 1973–2023, showcases Picasso’s stylistic experimentation during the period and features one of the first pieces he painted in Paris: Le Moulin de la Galette. His interest in the by-then notable spot in Montmartre was one he shared with artists such as van Gogh, who painted the Moulin de la Galette windmill; Renoir, whose 1876 Bal du moulin de la Galette is one of the most-recognizable impressionist paintings; and Toulouse-Lautrec, who depicted the dancehall in several works.

Picasso’s glowing-yet-garish rendering of the space is vibrant but unsettling, likely by design, and may have more in common with Ramon Casas’ melancholic and subdued depictions of the space than with the cheerier works above. This is perhaps unsurprising, given Picasso’s rapidly approaching Blue Period. In 1900, the dancehall was still popular with Parisians but also frequented by the disenfranchised, and it wasn’t long before Picasso would refocus his artistic attention on depictions of the exploited.

More than just a window into the artist’s early years, Young Picasso in Paris shows us the artist in transformation—a state that would ultimately come to define his long and influential career. Paris clearly left an indelible impression on Picasso, prompting the young artist to pursue his art with euphoric freedom that let him leave his own indelible impression on the world.

Young Picasso in Paris is on view through August 6.

The Artist Evolves in the Guggenheim’s ‘Young Picasso in Paris’