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Although it took more than thirty years for Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to be accepted by the public and critics, it is now seen as the starting point for the Cubism movement. As a portrayal of prostitutes in a brothel of Barcelona, the initial disapproval and rejection were not caused by the theme, but by its style – even though Picasso was very selective in the beginning to who sees it, like Georges Braque and Henry Matisse. This ground-breaking painting dislocates the perspective and loses spatial depth to a sense that the viewer can get lost trying to find a reference point. The positions of the women's bodies are ambiguous, looking like each part is seen from a different angle and their faces mostly resemble African masks. As opposed to the Expressionists, this painting uses contours to define forms.
After the initial shock, Braque also adapted to the movement and, along with Picasso, both painters would lead Cubism during the first two decades of the XX century. Though they did not work together or have much contact, they were both heading in the same direction. With a great attraction to the way Paul Cezanne saw basic geometric forms in nature and was able to plan out figures in an abstract way, Picasso and Braque agreed that art wasn’t supposed to be a copy of nature. They were also very influenced by African art, especially the masks and the earthy color pallets – very present in the begging of the movement.
The Cubism movement is usually divided into two phases, the first is called analytical and dates from 1907 to 1912, and the second is called synthetic, lasting all thru the 1920’s. The analytical phase was marked by the visual experiences made by Picasso and Braque, as an attempt to comprehend how the mind processes images. They would reduce natural forms to geometric figures, like cylinders, cones, and spheres, resulting in cold and flattened images – intellectually decomposed structures. Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler is enthusiastic about this new style and decided to promote Picasso’s and Braque’s paintings in his gallery in Paris. Braque shows works like House in L’Estaque, which he painted in the summer of 1908 when traveling to southern France. During this initial period, most critics despised Cubism, and neither was the public ready for such a radical change in art.
Little by little, the Cubism artists were able to make their work more welcoming and pleasing to the audience. Picasso paints an unrecognizable image of a woman playing guitar and entitles it, Ma Jolie, meaning my pretty girl. The title alone can humanize this abstract image and approach the viewer to a better understanding of this new aesthetic style. The French painter with Spanish origins Juan Gris also does this by adding more warmth and color to his work, as well as dissecting the images less, as seen in Portrait of Pablo Picasso. Fernand Leger’s work is more optimistic than his predecessors. He paints A The Exit of the Russian Ballet that belongs to a series of paintings in which he only uses primary colors and black. This color pallet is a step Cubism takes for bigger change and for achieving more of the public’s interest.
In 1912, the second phase of Cubism started, known as Synthetic Cubism, where the artists focus more on planning and structuring than observing, as well as giving the use of color a more important role. Artists are more interested in exploring different textures, and the fragmented and flat areas gain more dimension and ornaments, helping increase Cubism’s popularity. During this period, the collage technique gained more popularity as well, for these artists would introduce pieces of newspaper and fabric to the paintings and drawings. This new interest in combining different styles in one work lead Braque to make Still Life on a Table with “Gillette,” where he combines common elements, like the wrapper of a razor blade and sample of a baseboard, to construct an abstract piece. The collage technique is so popular during the Cubism that some artists even paint as to imitate it and it reached its peak in Henri Matisse’s later work when he was unable to continue painting. This style continued after the XX century and was explored during Dadaism, Pop Art, and Surrealism.
The Synthetic Cubism was led by a group of five artists: Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Francis Picabia, and, the famous Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp caused controversy after showing his painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, a work that influenced many artists from different areas, especially photography.