Francis Picabia’s career was audacious and inventive. Throughout his seventy-four years, he explored the diverse artistic movements of his time, encompassing painting, performance, publishing and film; an exceptional feat during such an exciting period in art. He is most famously known as one of the founding fathers of the Dada movement, along with Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara, but the young artist first made his name as an Impressionist painter at the debut of the twentieth century.
Born in Paris on 22 January 1879 to a French mother and a Cuban father, descended from Spanish aristocracy, Picabia showed great artistic promise and a vibrant personality from a young age. In his youth, in order to finance his stamp collection, Picabia copied his fathers’ collection of Spanish oil paintings, switching the copies with the originals which he in turn sold. Picabia studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and at the École des Arts Decoratifs in Paris alongside Georges Braque in the late 1990’s. Vincent Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec had only recently graduated when Picabia joined.
Picabia’s earliest dated works in his Impressionist style were painted in 1902 executed during a trip to the South of France with Georges Pissarro, the son of Camille Pissarro. The two travelled to Le Midi to meet Georges’ brother Ludovic-Rodolphe Pissarro. It was during this trip that Picabia began experimenting with the Impressionist style with a freshness and spontaneity. As well as the costal seascapes of Martigues and the south of France, Picabia was drawn to the medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing, which was favoured by his Impressionist forebears, particularly Alfred Sisley. Following in Sisley’s footsteps, Picabia painted the landscape in changing atmospheric conditions and at different times of the day in order to capture variations of light and colours within the landscape.
Picabia continued to master the Impressionist technique. He exhibited his works at the Salon des Artistes Français, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne in 1903. In 1905 he signed a three-year contract with the dealer Gustave Danthon, who held Picabia’s first solo exhibition at the prestigious Galerie Haussmann. His paintings were met with great acclaim, with critics stating that Picabia’s Impressionist work was personal and unique, far from being derivative of the work of the Impressionist masters. Picabia went on to hold a second successful exhibition with the Galerie Haussmann in 1907. One reviewer ecstatically declared, “Never would we have dared imagine that M. Picabia could arrive so quickly at this maturity, this mastery.” Unlike his predecessors, however, Picabia is believed to have worked from photographic postcards rather than immersing himself in nature and painting outdoors. In this, he travestied the original spirit of Impressionism and that style’s en plein air (in the open air) techniques. Camille Pissarro, whose sons were close friends with the young painter, noted that Picabia’s practice was shocking in the way he travestied the original spirit of Impressionism and en plein air techniques.
Shortly after the brilliant 1907 exhibition, Picabia’s style changed to focus on Neo-Impressionism, influenced by Signac, and he abandoned his Impressionist tendencies. Picabia viewed his art as an intimate extension of his life. It was a means to express his likes and dislikes, his thoughts and feelings—often without distinguishing between those that were serious or trivial, public or private. That attitude made for enormous variety in the styles and quality of his work, and he insisted on such freedom of expression even when it meant that most of the public might not like or understand what he was doing.
Picabia's work is held in the Permanent collections of the following museums: The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.