Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Picasso

“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso – An Analysis of the Work

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is probably the most well-known art piece by this Spanish artist, as well as the most controversial painting he created in his life. In this article, we will look at the influence of Picasso’s African Period on creating this painting. By doing a Les Demoiselles d’Avignon analysis we will discuss Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’s meaning and the influence this painting had on art history.



Pablo Picasso in Context Today

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1971) is one of the most famous names in the history of art. Alongside Leonardo Da Vinci, almost every person exposed to the Western canon of art history is aware of the fame of Pablo Picasso. In recent years, alongside movements like #MeToo, the character of Picasso has been drawn into question.

Debates about the way he treated women have brought up the age all old question, “can the art be separated from the artist?”

History of Pablo PicassoPortrait of Pablo Picasso in 1962; Argentina. Revista Vea y Lea, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That being said, it is undeniable that Pablo Picasso had a massive influence on the trajectory of art history and that he was, in fact, one of the pivotal figures that gave us Modern art. This makes looking at his achievements and the effect they had an interesting pursuit for people fascinated by art.


Artist Abstract of Pablo Picasso

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, on the 25th of October, 1881. He grew up in a middle-class, respectable family that was not particularly rich, but rich in culture and a love for art. He enjoyed spending time drawing as a child and hated doing schoolwork.

Picasso’s talent attracted attention from a very young age. He was lucky to have a father that taught drawing and painted himself.

His father quickly recognized Picasso’s talent and started instructing him in the naturalistic drawing style accepted by the art academies and industry at that time. The doves, bullfighting, and self-portraits that would surface in his work throughout his career, came from this period of his life.

Pablo PicassoPortrait photograph of Pablo Picasso, taken in 1908; AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As he had spent a lot of time training as a child, Picasso could finish his formal training in record time and, therefore, had his first successful art exhibition before the age of 21. The earlier works Picasso produced were mature from the start (at least the ones we know that have survived). His work was realistic, as expected from someone trained in the art academy at that stage, but it was also clear that he had mastered the techniques with unique speed.

He moved to Paris to pursue a career in painting at the turn of the century. Here, he was immensely influenced by the avant-garde movement that was centered in Paris.

However, he struggled in the beginning years and often had nothing to eat. Traveling between his home country and France, he created the blue paintings known as Picasso’s Blue Period. It was only with the creation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) that Picasso created a lot of controversies, which aided his career in taking off. With the painting of this shocking artwork, he etched himself permanently into the history of art, alongside the term Cubism.



Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s Genius Painting

ArtistPablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
Date Painted1907
MediumOil on canvas
Type of PaintingNude; still-life
Dimensions (cm)243.9 x 233.7
Art MovementCubism
LocationThe Museum of Modern Art, New York, United States of America
Current Estimated Value$1.2 billion

In this section of the article, we will look in depth at this famous artwork that changed the course of art history. We will contextualize the painting in Picasso’s career, the Cubism movement, and the socio-political environment it was created in. Then, we will do a comprehensive technical analysis of the artwork.


Cubism: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso in Context

The Cubism art movement was a complete break from the artistic tradition accepted and supported in Europe at the time. It started with the fundamentally new shapes Picasso used in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. After the creation of this painting and the shock with which it was received, Picasso and Georges Braque (1882 – 1963) decided to pursue the adventure they called Cubism together.

They worked together to create an utterly new and previously unimaginable language of form that freed artists up so much that most of the development of the Modern art movement could be attributed to these two artists.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon MeaningPhotograph of Georges Braque in 1908, published in Gelett Burgess, “The Wild Men of Paris”, Architectural Record, May 1910; Photographer non-identified, anonymous, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For the first time, it was really possible for artists to depict more than just reality. Cubism fragmented the world into small pieces and reorganized them to create a completely new meaning, world, and experience. Even though Cubism involved a lot of abstraction, it never went all the way to abstract the subject matter past the point of recognition. Some element of the subject was always recognizable. The purpose and point of a painting became about transforming something completely so that it is barely recognizable, but still has a logic within itself.

Although Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the most shocking and provocative work Picasso created, the Cubist paintings that followed were equally revolutionary.


The Process Behind Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso

Picasso became fascinated with African art after the completion of his Blue and Rose periods. The collection of African artifacts, masks, and sculptures ushered in Picasso’s African period. The splintered planes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the fragmentation of the faces to look like masks were inspired by Iberian, North African, and Egyptian sculptures and masks.

The discovery of African art liberated Picasso to create an entirely original painting style.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon AnalysisPaul Gauguin’s Oviri (Sauvage) (1894). The theme of Oviri is death, savagery, and wildness. Oviri stands over a dead she-wolf, while crushing the life out of her cub. As Gauguin wrote to Odilon Redon, it is a matter of “life in death”. From the back, Oviri looks like Auguste Rodin’s Balzac, a sort of menhir symbolizing the gush of creativity; Coldcreation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Picasso first started designing the painting in the winter of 1906 to 1907. He created more preliminary sketches for this painting than for any of the paintings he created before this point. Only half a year later, in the summer of 1907, did he start painting the large canvas. Even while painting, he constantly adjusted the composition. For example, the head of the figure crouching in the lower right corner was changed at least two times before it reached its current state. Now it is more Cubist in style, but before it was also an Iberian figure.

Picasso only unveiled this massive painting after months of revision.

His shocked friends and colleagues did not understand the painting at all and could not imagine the boundary-breaking influence it would have on Modern Art. As a result of their disgusted reactions, Picasso kept the painting in his studio for nine more years before exhibiting it in 1916.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Analysis: Compositional Overview

The painting shows five naked women that fill a cramped space. They seem to be consciously posing for the painter or viewer, with some of their gazes being confrontational. The background of distorted shapes and flat planes of color does not suggest any specific space that they are in and could even be a backdrop of cloth that they are standing against.

In the foreground, there is an unconventional still-life of fruit that seems to drift in space, lie on the floor or cloth the models are standing on, or rests on an upturned table.

The Avignon, included in the title, tells us directly who these models are. The Avignon is a famous street in Barcelona lined with brothels. Picasso painted confronting prostitutes, one sitting with her legs splayed open while the others lifted their arms and turn their bodies seductively for the viewer’s pleasure.

None of the figures are depicted in a conventionally feminine way, their powerful and confrontational stances are quite masculine in fact.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Analysis: Colors

The colors Pablo Picasso used to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon add to its seductive quality. The painting is hard to look at, but at the same time hard to look away from. The large flat areas of fleshy pinks and beiges confront the viewer with the nudity of the prostitutes.

Even though their genitals are abstracted and not realistically shown, the flesh tones create an exposed and intimate feeling – as if we are witnessing an immoral scene.

The earth tones, especially the reds, are contrasted with a streak of blue-green in the background. This area of color, as well as the white area in the background, is the only part of the background that really sets the figures apart from the space they exist in.

If it were not for this contrast, they would appear to be floating in space, nowhere in particular.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Analysis: Form

The women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are painted in flat planes of color that fragment and splinter their form. The way their faces are painted is clearly representative of Picasso’s African Period as they look more like masks than faces.  The woman on the left reminds us of Egyptian-style paintings, the two women in the middle look inspired by Iberian-style art, whereas those on the right have African-style features.

The angular and disjointed way Picasso painted these women makes them seem quite hostile and menacing.

This use of geometric form to paint the female nude was what made this painting so shocking in the first place. By first distorting their faces to look like masks, and further abstracting their bodies to be mostly just rough areas of color, Picasso removes their humanity – blending the line between looking at an individual or an objectified body.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Analysis: Perspective

Pablo Picasso entirely abandoned perspective in his development of the Cubist painting style. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he explored the two-dimensional plane of the canvas in this revolutionary way for the first time. The compact space the models pose in is painted in jagged shards. Instead of a clear spatial perspective, the background appears to be projecting, protruding, and three-dimensional in some places which makes it utterly nonsensical.

Cubism is famous for studying and painting objects and figures from multiple angles. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the faces of the women and the still-life at the bottom of the painting show this technique most directly.

The women’s faces are painted to look as if they are viewed from the front and the side at the same time. Whereas the still-life at the bottom of the composition seems to also be painted from multiple angles, with the tabletop being completely distorted in terms of perspective. Besides the influence on the actual form of the faces, Picasso’s African period also influenced this spatial depiction – with him favoring the flatness of his compositions over the realistic perspective.

This painting is considered to be proto-cubist, as this perspective distortion and cubic forms were pushed to more extreme levels after the completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Meaning

This shocking painting of five nudes was successful in highlighting the meaning Picasso wanted to convey. By painting these women to resemble African artifacts, blobs of color, and even animals in the way he captured their stances, he stripped them from their individuality – making them mere bodies instead of recognizable people.

By including the name Avignon, Picasso makes it undeniable that these women are prostitutes.

In one interpretation, Picasso objectifies their bodies, making their importance to this painting their stances and how they are drawing in the viewer. This can be seen as a way of highlighting how sex workers were perceived at the time.

On the other hand, the fact that the women are looking back, confronting the viewer with their gazes, could be interpreted as a way for Picasso to empower them.

In this argument, the assortment of different styles is done consciously by Picasso to capture the viewer’s attention. When the viewer is drawn in, their confronted by female figures that seem entirely unconscious of each other but utterly focused on staring back at the viewer. These women embody die idea of the self-possessed woman and therefore destabilize the understanding of their role being to pleasure men.



The Impact of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon by Picasso

Why is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon still such an influential artwork? To understand this question, we need to look at why it was such an influential work when it was just completed. When Picasso showed the painting to friends and colleagues after its completion in 1907, they were all shocked. Even some of the artist’s closest friends did not understand what Picasso tried to do. Matisse famously thought of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a bad joke and indirectly referenced it in his painting Bathers with a Turtle (1908).

Even Georges Braque, Picasso’s partner-in-Cubist-crime in the following few years, did not like the prostitute scene. Despite his dislike of the painting, he studied it intently and changed his mind fully before embarking on the Cubist collaboration with Picasso. 

If Picasso’s close artist community reacted like this, can you just imagine how the rest of the art world received Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? The fact that Picasso had tediously studied every inch of the painting and meticulously considered every detail; that he referenced The Bathers (1906) by Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906), the statue titled Oviri (1849) by Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) and the painting Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608 – 1614) by El Greco (1541 – 1614) did not impress the public at all.

Picasso's African PeriodA homage to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); domesticflight, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the painting was first exhibited at the Salon d’Antin in July 1916, it was seen as immoral. The poet André Salmon was the organizer of this exhibition and renamed the painting from Le bordel philosophique to its current name. He hoped that renaming it would make the painting less scandalous, as Picasso insisted on referring to it as “my brothel”. Salmon’s censorship, however, did not soften the shocked audience’s reaction.

But what Salmon and Picasso’s fellow artists seemed to miss was the artist’s blatant intention to shock. Provocation was exactly the purpose.

Even though prostitutes were painted throughout history, there was always some kind of romance or poetry in their depiction. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso purposefully and for the first time depicted sex workers without sadness, charm, social comment, or irony. He painted these women, in the words of John Berger, “like the palings of a stockade through eyes that look out as if at death – that is shocking.” There was no romance to them, they could be seen as objects of male sexual pleasure. 

Meaning of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by PicassoThe Chicago Picasso, a 50-foot high public Cubist sculpture that was made and donated by Picasso to the people of Chicago in 1967; J. Crocker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, Picasso drives the shock home by having their stoic faces confront the viewer. Their gazes and attention are squarely fixed on the viewer, facing the audience with the reality of their stripped humanity. Their confident stances reinforced their power and makes them seem like self-assured women. They have no shame about their bodies being so exposed, on the contrary, they are consciously posing for the viewer.

And equally shocking was the method by which he created this painting. Picasso threw all concern for formal problems out of the window. Instead of considering aesthetics, the way Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is emotional and aggressive. It was one of the first times in the history of art that outrage was depicted in such a raw manner in a painting.

Years later, the mix of styles still has critics and art lovers still scratching their heads. Picasso painted every woman in such a different way and this multiplicity of styles in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon makes it a very special painting in the contemporary moment as well.

Mostly, this assortment of painting styles is seen as indicative of a transition period in Picasso’s art. Whereas, some theorists like Suzanne Preston Blier believe that the mix of styles is supposed to be representative of the five geographic locations each woman symbolizes. Either way, when one stands in front of this monumental painting one can sense the catalyzing action it had to change the way humans create art forever. Even though we have become used to far more shocking artworks since their creation, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the birthplaces of the contemporary art we know today. This makes it a very impactful painting today as well. 


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso is one of the most influential paintings in art history. It led directly to the development of the Cubist art movement, which catalyzed a massive change in art history. The shocking distortion of five female prostitutes, influenced by African masks and sculptures created shocked ripples when it was first released. It has continued to impact artists up until today and is seen as Picasso’s most successful artwork. Besides it initially being received as a bad joke and completely unacceptable, Picasso’s arrogant rejection of the traditional art rules stuck to those that saw it when it was exhibited initially and the influence spread like wildfire throughout Europe.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Was Picasso’s African Period?

Just after the turn of the century, European artists became increasingly inspired by African sculptures and masks. Picasso’s work started showing influence from African art from 1907 to 1909. This influence is what largely catalyzed the Cubist art movement, as Picasso abandoned traditional rules around perspective and figurative naturalism. He started painting his figures with distorted proportions and mask-like faces.


What Is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’s Meaning?

There are different interpretations of the painting. One is that in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso wanted to show how inhumane people perceive sex workers. By putting masks on their faces and distorting their bodies, he made them unrecognizable and almost appear like objects of male sexual pleasure. The other interpretation could be that by making them so visually strange, Picasso drew in the viewer. Once the viewer is in front of the five naked ladies, they are confronted by the women’s unabashed and leveled gaze – challenging the viewer and empowering the women. 


Why Was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon So Influential?

Picasso’s utter abandonment of the traditional rules of the art academy allowed artists that followed him to explore more freely new ways of expression through art. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso change the way perspective, form, and color application was understood in painting. As he was already well-known in Paris, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon reached an audience of influential art critics and practicing artists at the time it was exhibited. This led to the scandal it caused spreading quickly and more artists pushing the limits of the question, what makes good art? Furthermore, the subject matter of the painting was also controversial, as it was the first time that prostitutes were painted in an equally visually distorted way, and seen as empowered and self-assured. Before Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, prostitutes were not depicted gazing back with confidence, or without irony or sadness.


Cite this Article

Nicolene, Burger, ““Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso – An Analysis of the Work.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. January 5, 2023. URL: https://artfilemagazine.com/les-demoiselles-davignon-by-picasso/

Burger, N. (2023, 5 January). “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso – An Analysis of the Work. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. https://artfilemagazine.com/les-demoiselles-davignon-by-picasso/

Burger, Nicolene. ““Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso – An Analysis of the Work.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source, January 5, 2023. https://artfilemagazine.com/les-demoiselles-davignon-by-picasso/.

One Comment

  1. What would a lithograph of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon signed by the artist be worth today?

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