Francis Picabia was a French avant-garde painter, poet and typographist.
Born in Paris of a French mother and a Cuban father of Spanish descent, his family was affluent, but not without tragedy. Picabia’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was seven and her mother died soon after. He was raised by his father.
Picabia’s artistic ability was apparent from his youth. In 1894, he copied a collection of Spanish paintings that belonged to his grandfather, switching the copies for the originals and selling the originals to finance his stamp collection.
During the late 1890s, Picabia began to study art under Fernand Cormon and others at École des Arts Decoratifs, Cormon’s academy at 104 boulevard de Clichy, where Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec had also studied. From the age of twenty Picabia lived by painting. Subsequently, he inherited money from his mother, making him financially independent.
1899 marked Picabia’s debut in the Salon des Artistes Français with the painting, Une rue aux Martigues.
From 1903 to 1908, Picabia was influenced by the Impressionist paintings of Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro. His subject matter included small churches, lanes, roofs of Paris, riverbanks, wash houses, and barges. He began exhibiting at the more liberal Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants as well as the avant garde galerie of Berthe Weill. Success followed, and Picabia signed a contract with the prestigious Galerie Haussmann.
By this point, Picabia had already exhibited throughout Europe and counted some of the most illustrious public figures in France among his patrons and collectors. A highly successful show at Galerie Hausmann in 1905 launched the young artist into prominence, where he received almost universal praise for his Impressionist landscapes. Commenting on the reception of the exhibition Le Figaro stated ‘There are new exhibitions every day, but not all are lucky enough to draw the crowds, as has been the case with the show of landscapes by M. Picabia, which has attained the proportions of an important event. Only a week ago those who follow the Salons in a casual way, paying no attention to works by artists they do not know, would have said: ‘Picabia? Who is he?’ But now that this painter has exhibited sixty-odd works at the Galerie Hausmann it is a very different story. One hears praises on all sides; everyone wants to have seen him and many claim to have discovered him’ (M. L. Borràs, Picabia, London, 1985, p. 49).
As William Camfield rightfully points out, ‘virtually every artist who contributed to ‘modern’ art during the first decade of the twentieth century passed through an Impressionist or Neo-Impressionist phase in his career;’ but what distinguishes Picabia, is ‘the fact that for him, Impressionism was not merely a passing phase but a major period’ (W. A. Camfield, Francis Picabia His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979, p. 8).
By 1908, he had produced more than 1,000 paintings, and Picabia’s Impressionist period afforded him critical acclaim and financial success. He was keen however to explore new avenues in painting, and he evolved through a wide variety of artistic styles for the rest of his career.
After experimenting with Pointillism, Picabia became associated with Cubism. His highly abstract planar compositions were colourful and rich in contrasts. He was one of the early major figures of the Dada movement in the United States and in France. A friend and associate of Marcel Duchamp, he became known for a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual art. Even after Dada had been supplanted by other styles, the French painter and writer went on to explore a diverse and almost incoherent mix of movements and subject matter. He shifted easily between abstraction and figuration at a time when artists clung steadfastly to one approach, and his gleeful disregard for the conventions of modern art encouraged some remarkable innovations even later in his career, from the layered Transparency series of the 1920s to the kitsch, erotic nudes of the early 1940s. Picabia remains revered by contemporary painters as one of the century’s most intriguing and inscrutable artists.