Two Nudes (1906) by Pablo Picasso
Explanation of Neoclassical Female Nudes influenced by Greek Sculpture

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"Two Nudes"
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Two Nudes (1906)


Picasso's Classicism
Analysis of Two Nudes
Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso


Name: Two Nudes (1906)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Figure painting of female nudes
Movement: Classicism
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York

For the meaning of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by Neoclassical painters
like Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Picasso's Classicism

One of the best artists of all time, Picasso's greatness stemmed in part from his ability to switch styles according to the demands of his subject. One style that was ever-present in his armoury, was classicism - an imitation of the calm and monumentality depicted in the art of classical antiquity, notably Greek sculpture - known chiefly through Roman copies. For the background to Picasso's modern form of neoclassical painting, and for an explanation of how it can be reconciled with his abstract Cubism, please see: Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30). For how his use of classicism developed, see: Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

For his best works, please see: Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris) and Large Bather (1921, Paris); Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Paris); and Woman in White (1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).

Analysis of Two Nudes by Picasso

Two Nudes, which was painted in the autumn-winter of 1906, is the culmination of a great series of drawings and paintings on the theme of a pair of women which had begun to fascinate Picasso during his trip to Gosol earlier in the year. In La Toilette (1906, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), their relationship had apparently been that of mistress and servant; in Two Nude Women (1906, Private Collection, Zurich), that of friends or sisters. Here, and in the many related studies, including Seated Nude and Standing Nude (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art), the meaning of the gestures and the impassive but significantly angled faces, remains ambiguous, although there is a slight hint of narrative - some kind of dialogue between them, perhaps a proposal. Two of these studies depict the two women in a curtained interior, accompanied by, in one case, a seated nude, and in the other, a seated and a standing nude. Both are more suggestive (than is Two Nudes itself) of an enclosed and draped interior of a harem or a brothel. Picasso had sketched out a large oil of a harem that summer (Cleveland Museum of Art), and in his notorious Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York) of the following year he depicted a brothel. But although Two Nudes is obviously directly related to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and can with hindsight be described as in some sense a 'study' for it, it is distinctly more generalised in its meaning, less of a 'subject' picture, and more of a simple exercise in the traditional genre of academic art - the life painting or drawing, which was the foundation of every art student's training.



Picasso's sources for this imposing figure painting underline its relationship to the French Academy, rather than to any narrative tradition of painting. For whereas Les Demoiselles d'Avignon has sources in religious, mythological and naturalist paintings on the theme of the display of naked women, Two Nudes is more closely related to ancient traditions of sculpture - both Iberian and archaic Greek sculpture - to the monumental Bather paintings of Cezanne, and to the squatly proportioned sculptures of standing nudes by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). So, although one can interpret the painting as the image of one woman ushering another through the curtain into the unseen room (or stage) beyond, Picasso also invites us to interpret it as a study of the same model from two different angles, and to see it as a sculptural relief without any specific meaning.

His use of monochrome heightens our sense of everything depicted being sculpted out of the same rough, tactile substance, whether terracotta or stone, for like several of his other modern paintings, this was a substitute for the carvings he hankered to make. (In Gosol Picasso had hoped to be able to carve alongside his friend, the sculptor Casanovas, but in the event they did not coincide there.)

In the context of the artistic debates of the period, Two Nudes is best understood as an outstanding example of the 'primitive classicism' which art theorist Maurice Denis had identified as the goal of the best modern artists of the day in his review of the Salon d'Automne of 1905 - classical in its synthetic character and its attention to form rather than anecdote; primitive in its dependence on artistic traditions untouched by academic taste, and therefore pure and fresh.

NOTE: Picasso's classical works were influenced by earlier paintings by Cezanne, such as The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) and Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900, J Paul Getty Museum, LA).

Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso

La Vie (Life) (1903) Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Boy with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905) Private Collection.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Guernica (1937) Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.

Weeping Woman (1937) Tate Collection, London.


• For the meaning of other neoclassicist paintings, see: Homepage.

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