Cubism: How Picasso and Others Broke From Tradition to Transform Modern Art

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Since its emergence over 100 years ago, Cubism has been regarded as one of modern art‘s most famous and fascinating art movements. Cubism is closely associated with iconic artists like Pablo Picasso, whose avant-garde approach to everyday subject matter turned art history on its head.

Featuring fractured forms and topsy-turvy compositions, Cubism abandoned the figurative portrayals found in genres of art and moved toward total abstraction. This aspect—along with its unique evolution and lasting influence—has made Cubism one of the 20th century's most celebrated forms of art.


What is Cubism?

Cubism is an art movement that made its debut in 1907. Pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the style is characterized by fragmented subject matter deconstructed in such a way that it can be viewed from multiple angles simultaneously.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Pablo Picasso, “Girl with a Mandolin,” 1910 (Photo: MoMA via Wikimedia Commons)



At the turn of the century, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism—movements inspired by the Impressionists‘ experimental approach to painting—dominated European art. French painter, sculptor, printmaker, and draughtsman Georges Braque (1882-1963) contributed to the Fauvist movement with his polychromatic paintings of stylized landscapes and seascapes.

[ B ] Georges Braque - Passage à la Ciotat (1907) - Detail

Georges Braque, Detail of “Landscape at La Ciotat,” 1907

In 1907, Braque met Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, and designer Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). At this time, Picasso was in his “African Period,” producing primitive works influenced by African sculpture and masks. Like Braque's Post-Impressionist paintings, these pieces played with form (and sometimes color), but remained figurative.

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06, Met

Pablo Picasso, “Gertrude Stein,” 1905-1906

After they met, however, Braque and Picasso began working together, deviating further from their previous styles and collaboratively creating a new genre: Cubism.




Before the movement was underway, both Picasso and Braque applied elements of the soon-to-be style to their respective genres. This fascinating transition into Cubism is especially apparent in two of their works: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Viaduct at L'Estaque (1908).

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is perhaps Picasso's most famous piece from his African Period. Dated 1907, it was created on the cusp of Primitivism and Cubism, as evident in the figures' mask-like faces and the fragmented subject matter.

NYC - MoMA: Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,” 1907

Viaduct at L'Estaque depicts Braque's interest in playing with perspective and breaking subjects into geometric forms—key Cubist traits.

Braque, Viaduct at L'Estaque

Georges Braque, “Viaduct at L'Estaque,” 1908


Analytic Cubism

The first official phase of the movement is known as Analytic Cubism. This period lasted from 1908 through 1912, and is characterized by chaotic paintings of fragmented subjects rendered in neutral tones.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Pablo Picasso, “Still Life with a Bottle of Rum,” 1911 (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

The fractured forms often overlap with one another, displaying the subject from multiple perspectives at once.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Georges Braque, “Still Life with Metronome,” 1909 (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

Picasso also applied the principles of Analytic Cubism to his sculpting practice, culminating in a collection of busts and figures that emphasize the phase's experimental approach to perspective.


Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman,” 1909–10

At this time, other artists interested in the avant-garde joined Picasso and Braque, including Spanish painter Juan Gris (1887-1927).

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Juan Gris, “Portrait of Picasso,” 1912 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Gris would go on to become another well-known Cubist painter, particularly known for his role in Synthetic Cubism.


Synthetic Cubism

Synthetic Cubism is the movement's second phase, emerging in 1912 and lasting until 1914. During this time, Picasso, Braque, Gris, and other artists simplified their compositions and brightened their color palettes.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Juan Gris, “Still Life with Bordeuaux Bottle,” 1919 (Photo: The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons)

Synthetic Cubism showcases an interest in still-life depictions, rendered as either paintings or collage art.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Georges Braque, “Rum and Guitar,” 1918 (Photo: L'Opinion via Wikimedia Commons)

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Pablo Picasso, “Head,” 1913-1914 (Photo: National Galleries, Edinburgh via Wikimedia Commons)



Given the popularity of Post-Impressionism and Braque's own relationship with Fauvism, it is no surprise that both movements played a pivotal role in shaping Cubism.



Cubists borrowed several artistic elements employed by Post-Impressionist painters—namely, Paul Cézanne.

These include flat planes of color, geometric forms, and, most significantly, a distorted sense of perspective. “The hard-and-fast rules of perspective which it succeeded in imposing on art were a ghastly mistake which it has taken four centuries to redress,” Braque explained to The Observer in 1957. “Cézanne, and after him Picasso and myself, can take a lot of credit for this. Scientific perspective forces the objects in a picture to disappear away form the beholder instead of bringing them within his reach as painting should.”

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire,” 1904-1906 (Photo: The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons)



In addition to Post-Impressionism, Cubist art was inspired by Fauvism.

On top of Braque's association with the movement, this influence was strengthened by Picasso's relationship to Matisse, an artist renowned for using blocks of artificial color and repeating patterns to compose a scene. “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time,” Picasso recalled in the 1960s. “No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”

Portrait of Madame Matisse, The Green Line, Henri Matisse, 1905

Henri Matisse, “Portrait of Madame Matisse,” 1905



Like other modern art movements, Cubism would eventually influence—and even spawn—several other genres of art.

Futurists found inspiration in Cubism's energetic compositions, while Surrealists adopted and adapted collage art. Similarly, the idea of deconstructing subjects into fragments influenced artists associated with the Dada, De Stijl, Bauhaus, and Abstract Expressionist movements.

What is Cubism Definition Cubism Art Picasso Cubism

Marcel Duchamp (Dadaist), “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2,” 1912 (Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to these modern genres, Cubism's influence is also evident in contemporary art. From Cubist tattoos to graffiti inspired by Picasso's portraits, these playful pieces showcase the timeless aesthetic, captivating compositions, and lasting legacy of Cubism.

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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