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Stories of Iconic Artworks: Pablo Picasso‘s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

By Shira Wolfe

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”

Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso is considered one of those pivotal artistic moments unquestionably dividing the past from the future. Modernism was swooping across Europe in the period that Picasso painted this masterpiece, and with it, he reinvented the wheel of Western painting. The artwork depicts five naked women, created from flat, jagged planes, their faces inspired by Iberian sculpture and African masks. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso’s landmark work, was a precursor to the style that became known as Cubism and is often considered the first Cubist painting. We examine the story and circumstances surrounding the creation of this iconic artwork. 

Historical context of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Picasso started on his avant-garde masterpiece in the winter of 1906-1907; he was 25 years old at the time. At the start of a new century, in the years leading up to World War I, Picasso seemed to have concluded his Blue period and have poured his desire to completely reinvent Western art into this one canvas. Meanwhile, all throughout the art world, artists were exploring freely, radically breaking with past traditions, and moving forwards towards Modernism – Schoenberg composed his Erwartung in 1909, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring in 1910, and with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon signaling the start of Cubism, Picasso was on his very own quest of radically reinventing painting. By the time Picasso was at the end of his Cubist explorations, it was 1914: James Joyce had started writing Ulysses, and the First World War had just begun.

“It is a work which to my mind transcends painting; it is the theater of everything that has happened in the last 50 years.”

André Breton

Creating Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was revolutionary because Picasso absolutely contradicted everything that had been understood as correct in Western painting up until that point: he smashed idealized notions of beauty, did away with conventions of perspective, and worked with styles inspired by Iberian and African art.  


Picasso drew the first designs for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the winter of 1906-1907. He produced more preparatory drawings and paintings for this project than ever before, hundreds of sketches and studies. It wasn’t till the early summer of 1907, almost half a year later, that he started painting his large canvas. The title of the painting refers to a street in Barcelona, Carrer d’Avinyó, which was known for its many brothels. The five figures, “The Women of Avignon”, depict prostitutes of this red-light district in Barcelona boldly staring back at the viewer from the painting. Picasso painted each of the figures quite differently: the faces of the two figures on the right are composed of sharp geometric shapes and are the most Cubist of the figures; the faces of the other three figures are painted in the Iberian style. 

Picasso had long acknowledged the influence of Iberian sculpture on his art, and in 1907, he visited the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, the first anthropological museum in the city. Here, he experienced somewhat of an epiphany while viewing the collection of African and Oceanic art and artifacts, in particular the tribal masks. These artworks had an immense impact on Picasso, inspiring the anti-naturalism and the defying of mimetic norms in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso had also been influenced by Gauguin and his artworks created in Tahiti. 


When the painting was finished, Picasso unveiled it in his studio, and it remained there for quite some time, only known to an intimate circle of friends, artists, dealers, and collectors. First exhibited in 1916, the painting became truly widely recognized for its importance in the early 1920s following André Breton’s publication discussing the work. To many, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was revolutionary, to many it was shocking and obscene, but most people agree it heralded in the new direction of the arts in twentieth century, marking the very beginning of Cubism. Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, wrote about the painting: 

“Early in 1907, Picasso began a strange large painting depicting women, fruit, and drapery, which he left unfinished. It cannot be called other than unfinished, even though it represents a long period of work. Begun in the spirit of the works of 1906, it contains in one section the endeavors of 1907 and thus never constitutes a unified whole. The nudes, with large, quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-colored, black and white. That is the style of 1906. In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundly modeled in chiaroscuro. The colors are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once.”

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at MoMA
Installation view of the gallery “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in the exhibition “Collection 1880s-1940s”, MoMA, 2019-2021

Where to find Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was first purchased from Picasso by Jacques Doucet in 1924 for a sum of 25,000 francs. It is thought that Picasso sold the painting at this relatively low price because he thought Doucet would stipulate that the painting should go to the Louvre after his death. However, this never happened, and when Doucet died in 1929, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was sold through private dealers. In 1937, the painting was included in an exhibition at Jacques Seligmann and Co. in New York. Alfred H. Barr Jr. then director of MoMA in New York City insisted on purchasing the painting for the museum, and it went on view there in 1939. Today, the painting is still on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art and remains one of the most celebrated pieces in the museum’s art collection.

Relevant sources to learn more

For other articles from the ‘Stories of Iconic Artworks’ Series, see:
Stories of Iconic Artworks: Picasso’s Guernica
Stories of Iconic Artworks: The Marina Abramovic Performance The House With The Ocean View
Stories of Iconic Artworks: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother
Stories of Iconic Artworks: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square
Stories of Iconic Artworks: Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Mural
Stories of Iconic Artworks: Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings

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