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Pablo Picasso’s Ironic First Word, And 19 Other Illuminating Facts About The Artist

You don’t have to be an art aficionado to have heard of Picasso. He’s one of the undisputed greats; up there with Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, and all of the most celebrated artists in history. At the very least, you’ll know him as “the guy who did those weird paintings.” But there are some things that might surprise, and even shock you about Picasso. So, without further ado, allow us to paint a revealing portrait of the renowned Spanish artist…

20. His birth name isn’t Pablo Picasso

While “Pablo Picasso” trips beautifully off the tongue, the great man’s real name ties it in knots! Picasso was actually baptized *takes a big, big breath* Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. Phew!

It was down to the sound

According to the My Modern Met website, the “Picasso” part was his mother’s surname. He liked the sound of this one, as he once explained. He said, “[Picasso] was stranger, more resonant, than ‘Ruiz.’ And those are probably the reasons I adopted it. Do you know what appealed to me about that name? Well, it was undoubtedly the double ‘s,’ which is fairly unusual in Spain.”

19. His dad was also an artist

You could argue a talent for art was in Picasso’s blood, as his father was a teacher at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. A skilled painter himself, José Ruiz y Blasco nurtured his son’s ability. He could arguably take some of the credit for making him the eminent artist he became.

Recognizing his genius

Señor Ruiz apparently struggled with his son’s genius, though, as it highlighted his lesser ability. So the story goes, Picasso’s dad one day found the youngster painting over a sketch that Ruiz had done of a pigeon. Recognizing his son’s immense talent, he abandoned his own art for many years afterwards.

18. His talent was spotted at a very young age

Seeing that his son had an exceptional gift, Picasso’s art teacher dad dedicated himself to teaching his son the methods and techniques of the master painters. As such, the young talent began to experiment from a remarkably tender age. He tried it all, whether that was sketching, oil painting, and sculpting.

9 year old's masterpiece

Picasso completed his first painting — which was titled The Picador — when he was just nine years old! And at a mere 13 years of age, he won a place at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. The young prodigy completed his taxing entrance exam in just a week, while it took most other students a month!

17. He wasn’t good at school

It’s an old story: the kid who’s passionate about one particular thing — let’s say, sport — neglects his other school studies so he can focus on his favorite. Well, that was the case for young Picasso. Only in this instance, of course, the overriding passion this kid obsessed over was art.

Flunking classes

So, we know that the great painter had a prodigious talent, which meant he put all of his energies into art. Unfortunately, this entailed flunking the other subjects at school as a result, which obviously didn’t go down very well with his teachers. But you can’t be great at everything!

16. His art has always been controversial

While there’s no doubting Picasso’s genius for lots of people, his work has always divided opinion. He was incredibly experimental with his style, of course, pivoting all the way from neoclassicism over to the abstract and surreal. This confused and baffled many of the critics who laid eyes on his work.

Critics were bewildered

A major exhibition of Picasso’s art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1940s was met with fierce criticism. Anita Brenner of the New York Times described his “multiplicity of styles” as “bewildering.” While Art News’ Alfred Frankfurter labeled the artist as simultaneously a charlatan and genius.

15. He was a poet, too

Whether you love or hate the work of Picasso, there’s no denying that he was an artist of extraordinary ability. And he was multi-talented, too. The man played around with a whole bunch of other forms, including sculpture, ceramics, collage, and theater design. He even turned his hand to poetry.

He was pals with the greats

Picasso was influenced by the many writers he befriended from within the Paris social scene. These included figures such as André Salmon, Jean Cocteau, and Pierre Reverdy, who all helped the artist become enthused by poetry. He later penned multiple verses from middle-age onwards, including The Burial of the Count of Orgaz in 1959.

14. He had a whirlwind romance with Coco Chanel

As we mentioned earlier, Picasso lived in Paris during the early part of the 20th century. This is where he hung out with an elite bunch of bohemian buddies. The master artist’s friends included some of the most highly-respected artists, writers, and designers of the era. Among them was Coco Chanel.

She was afraid of him

The legendary fashionista reportedly enjoyed a number of high-profile love affairs in her time, including a brief one with Picasso himself. According to Chanel biographer Lisa Chaney, the designer said of her artist lover, “He was wicked. He fascinated me the way a hawk would — he filled me with fear.”

13. He was accused of swiping the Mona Lisa

When he was 29 years old, Picasso was held on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. His friend, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, had also been brought in for questioning. And as it happened, he ended up pointing the finger of suspicion at Picasso. Some friend he was!

It took years to clear his name

Both men were proven innocent, though. A couple of years later, it was discovered that an Italian staff member at the Louvre was the one who’d stolen Da Vinci’s iconic artwork. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, held the belief that this most famous of paintings really belonged in his homeland of Italy.

12. He and Salvador Dalí didn’t get along

Now, you’d think two of the greatest surrealist artists of the 20th century would get along, wouldn’t you? But supposedly, that wasn’t the case for Picasso and Salvador Dalí. According to Spanish website La Republica, the master painters did not get along. And it was down to their political beliefs.

But it wasn't for lack of trying

You see, Dalí was a supporter of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. As a communist, Picasso naturally held a strong opposition to Franco. According to La Republica, Dalí actually wrote a number of letters to his peer Picasso, seeking his respect and friendship. But Picasso totally ignored every single one.

11. His first word had a special significance

William Shakespeare famously wrote in Twelfth Night, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It seems that Picasso was in the first group. He was born gifted, if his first word is anything to go by. It had, after all, a spooky significance.

It foreshadowed his prodigy

The tot apparently said “piz,” which is an abbreviation of “lapiz.” Any Spanish speakers out there will know that this means “pencil.” How about that? While most kids’ first utterances tend to be “momma,” or “dada,” the young Picasso was more interested in a tool to draw with! Definitely a budding prodigy.

10. He also starred in movies

As well as the more traditional art forms of drawing, painting and sculpture, Picasso experimented with other artistic mediums. In addition to poetry, he tried his hand at writing for the stage. He penned the farcical play Desire Caught by the Tail in 1941 and The Four Little Girls in 1949.

Picasso cameos

But Picasso wasn’t content with all of that. Oh no, he also popped up in movies, too! The artist made a number of cameos in film, including in his pal Jean Cocteau’s 1960 picture Testament of Orpheus. He also assisted Henri-Georges Clouzot in the making of his 1955 documentary-film The Mystery of Picasso.

9. He was the most prolific artist of all time

From his first notable painting at the age of nine right up to his death aged 91, Picasso never stopped creating art. Not only did he co-invent Cubism and collage, the great artist also holds the Guinness World Record for being the most prolific painter of all time.

The final count of his works

Picasso’s entry in the record book states that over his 75-year career, he created an astonishing 13,500 paintings and designs. On top of that, there were 100,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations, and 300 sculptures and ceramics. Wow! His body of work has been valued at a whopping $788 million.

8. One of his paintings was slammed by other artists

Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was, to put it bluntly, revolutionary. It made a bold transition from a more traditional style over to the artist’s developing Cubist approach. Depicting a group of odd-looking women with bodies comprised of jagged shapes, it was met with widespread revulsion upon its unveiling.

Matisse called it ugly

Picasso’s great rival Matisse was reportedly horrified by the painting. And according to the PBS website Culture Shock, art critic André Salmon wrote at the time, “It was the ugliness of the faces that froze with horror the half-converted.” Today, of course, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered to be a masterpiece.

7. Meaning behind his famous striped shirt

Nautical chic has pretty much always been in vogue. But really, who would have thought Picasso was one of the pioneers of the fab trend? Yep, the great artist is synonymous with his favorite shirt, which was a nautical-style garment in white with blue horizontal stripes. How trendy he was!

His tribute to France

Although he was born in Spain — Málaga, to be precise — and educated in his native country, Picasso spent most of his life in France. And that iconic shirt is, in fact, part of the French Navy uniform. It bears 21 blue stripes in total, which have a specific meaning. Basically, they represent each of Napoleon’s battle victories.

6. Most expensive artwork

While some of Picasso’s work was met with scorn, the value of his artistic mastery has since been fully realized. Now, the great man’s works fetch dizzying sums of money when put up for auction. Take, for example, Women of Algiers (Version O), which is the most expensive artwork ever.

It sold for a staggering sum

The piece was painted in 1955, and is one of a series of 15 artworks by Picasso. The complete series was originally purchased in 1956 for $212,500, which would be around $2 million now. But in 2015, just one of the paintings — “Version O” — fetched a jaw-dropping $179.4 million at a Christie’s auction.

5. He’s had more artworks stolen than any other artist

With Picasso’s works fetching silly sums of money, it’s little wonder that a huge number of his artworks have been stolen. According to My Modern Met, over 1,000 pieces by the artist had been registered as stolen in 2012. One thief got eight years in prison for the 2010 theft of a Picasso painting.

One woman found her own stolen Picasso

My Modern Met also reported the case of a billionaire named Wilma Tisch. She sued an art dealer after discovering one of her Picasso paintings for sale in his gallery. Tisch was an enthusiastic art collector, but she didn’t even notice when the piece was stolen by a member of her housekeeping staff.

4. He refused payment for a famous commission

Despite the insane value of his work, it seems that in life, Picasso was by no means greedy for money. He proved this in 1967, when he was approached to make the remarkable “Chicago Picasso” that you might know of. You certainly can’t miss the towering city sculpture — it’s 50-feet high!

He gifted it instead

Picasso clearly put a heck of a lot of man-hours into the abstract landmark, which, as always with his work, has divided opinion. But the really cool thing about it is that he turned down his $100,000 commission for the sculpture. He instead gifted it to the citizens of Chicago.

3. He made a gesture to the people of Basel

Around the same time that Picasso donated his sculpture to the city of Chicago, he made a similarly selfless gesture to the people of Basel in Switzerland. And the whole episode was connected to a pair of his paintings. These had ended up being held in the city’s Kuntzmuseum in 1967.

So they gifted him in return

It turned out many people in Basel liked these works and didn’t want them to leave their city. So, a referendum was called to see whether the citizens of the region should just collectively buy them. It passed, and the works were purchased. When Picasso found out about all this, he donated a collection of paintings to the Kuntzmuseum. This earned him honorary Basel citizenship.

2. He died the richest artist in history

In April 1973, at the ripe old age of 91, Picasso passed away from heart failure and lung complications. His extraordinarily prolific career had made him the richest artist in history. At the time of his death, Picasso’s estate was worth anywhere from $100 million to $250 million — or as much as $1.3 billion in today’s money.

But he left some hefty bills behind

Despite this, the great artist passed away leaving a rather hefty inheritance tax bill. His daughter Maya Ruiz-Picasso settled it, though, by giving the French government a collection of her father’s work. Finance minister Bruno Le Maire wrote on Twitter in 2021 that the collection would “deepen and enrich [France’s] cultural heritage.”

1. He stood up to a German soldier during WWII

Picasso was staunch in his political beliefs. He was, in fact, a self-proclaimed communist, and he took a fiercely anti-war stance. This, naturally enough, was reflected in his art. His eminent work Guernica depicts the brutality of war and was painted in response to the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

He kept his cool

Picasso stayed in Paris while it was under German occupation during World War II. So, the story goes, one day his home was being searched by German soldiers when a photograph of Guernica was found. The officer in charge asked, “Did you do that?” And Picasso responded, “No, you did.”