Pigeons gather in a square in Barcelona.
Note: Pigeons and doves form the bird family Columbidae, of which there are 300 species. Ornithologically, there is no simple way to distinguish a pigeon from a dove. Some specialists refer to the smaller species as “doves” and the larger ones as “pigeons,” but this is not consistently applied.
Collared doves can be tamed in urban areas, such as these two sweeties being handfed in Poland.
In reference to the works of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, the issue is further muddled. The titles of many of his works include the Spanish word la paloma, which means both “pigeon” and “dove,” so we aren’t sure which bird he intended to depict, if, indeed, he did intend to create such a distinction.
Finally, Picasso biographers, art curators, and translators have added their own layers of confusion. For example, the painting, “Child Holding a Dove,” (National Gallery, London) has been given two different French title translations: “L’Enfant A La Colombe” (Child With the Dove) and “L’Enfant Au Pigeon” (Child With A Pigeon).
Therefore, for the purpose of this article, the terms, “pigeon” and “dove,” are used interchangeably, as is common practice, except when otherwise explicitly stated.
Now for our story:
“Picasso in Underwear,” photo by David Douglas Duncan, 1957. From the earliest age, the most famous artist of the 20th Century did whatever he wanted, which might include posing in his jockeys on his front doorstep at age 76.
Famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) grew up around pigeons. His father, José Ruiz Blasco, an artist in his own right, bred pigeons (rock doves), which became his favorite subject to paint. Ruiz became known as El Palomero (The Pigeon Fancier). Pablo’s father taught him how to paint pigeons. (1)
In Pablo’s hometown of Málaga, Spain, pigeons roosted in the sycamore trees in the Plaza de la Merced, where he and his sisters played. While the girls frolicked in the square, Pablo used a stick to make bird drawings in the dirt. (2)
Much to the dismay of his elementary school teachers, Little Pablo, or “Pablito,” drew constantly. Every once in a while, he brought a pigeon to class and spent his time sketching it rather than doing his assigned schoolwork.
Pablo used every inch of his drawing paper, covering the page with scenes of his favorite subjects: bullfights and pigeons. (3)
Guided by his father, Picasso received professional art instruction. His talent grew and was recognized. By the age of 15, he was successfully exhibiting his artwork. By 1901, he was splitting his time between Barcelona and Paris, falling increasingly in the company of artists heavily influenced by post-impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh.
That same year, at the age of 20, Picasso had become so respected an artist that he had a Paris show in the Galerie Vollard almost to himself, sharing it with another Basque. At this exhibition, Picasso
sold 15 of his 65 paintings and drawings before the exhibition had even opened.” (4)
Through all these changes, however, pigeons still charmed him, as is evident in his sentimental 1901 painting, “Child Holding a Dove” (1901), a piece that ushered in his somber Blue Period.
Pigeons even appeared during his cubist period, as in “Woman With Pigeons” ( 1930).
“Woman With Pigeons,” by Pablo Picasso, 1930.
Before 1937, Picasso had not used his art for political expression. It was in that year, though, that he was to create his most famous work. Commissioned by the Spanish Republican government, Picasso created an enormous mural called “Guernica.” It was named after a Spanish town in the Basque country that had been firebombed by Nazis, backers of the Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1937-1939).
Guernica, Spain, after the April 26, 1937, aerial bombing by Nazis. It was market day and the quiet village was filled with women and children. There were few men left in Guernica, as most were off fighting in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. The Nazis bombed the town for two hours, slaughtering hundreds of innocents. When the town caught fire, those not burned to death tried to escape the inferno by taking refuge in the outskirts of town. Yet there was no escape, as they found themselves trapped all around by bombed-out bridges and roads. Some of these women and children were gunned down by aerialists. The Nazis supported the rebel forces of General Franco to test out war tactics and weapons. Although there was a military target outside Guernica, a munitions factory, it was left unscathed by the April 1937 bombing. It is believed that the bombing was used to intimidate those in opposition to Franco’s impending rule.
After the painting “Guernica” (see below) was exhibited in the Paris International Exhibition (1937), it toured Europe and the U.S., drawing international attention to the Spanish Civil War and the horrors of war.
“Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso. (1937)
“Guernica” gained monumental status, becoming a potent anti-war symbol and thrusting Pablo Picasso to the forefront of the Peace Movement. In May of 1940, Hitler invaded France. Throughout WWII, Picasso lived in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he was continually harassed by the Gestapo who were familiar with his anti-Nazi mural.
Picasso continued to paint and draw pigeons and doves. In 1949, author Louis Aragon chose the artist’s lithograph, “La Colombe,” (The Dove) for the poster commemorating the Peace Conference in Paris. (5)
“La Colombe” (The Dove) by Picasso, 1949
Posters of “La Colombe” were all over Paris when Picasso’s daughter was born that April so he named his daughter Paloma (Spanish for dove).
In this 1951 image, Pablo Picasso is shown with 2 of his 4 children, whose mother was Francoise Gilot: Paloma (b. 1949) in his arms and Claude (b. 1947) Photo Edward Quinn, © edwardquinn.com
The model for the famous “peace dove” was one of artist Henri Matisse ‘s doves.
Henri Matisse in his studio with his doves. Vence, France. 1944. photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson
Matisse and Picasso had known each other since 1904 when they were introduced at the Paris salon of Gertrude Stein, an important collector of art, particularly Matisse’s. Matisse and Picasso had a profound influence on one another and their art.
After Matisse died in 1954, Picasso was deeply saddened. He moved his family to a large villa near Cannes in the south of France and painted a series called “Studio” in homage to Matisse. He painted almost a dozen canvases of the same view from his third floor studio window – with the lush background of sky and garden and sea – while, in the foreground, “white doves” (6) nested and played in a dovecote Picasso had built on his terrace. Picasso did not ordinarily paint what he saw; he drew upon his imagination for artistic inspiration. It was his old friend Matisse who drew from nature. Therein lay Picasso’s tribute to Matisse.
“The Studio (Pigeons),” by Picasso, 1957, is painted in a style reminiscent of Matisse.
Meanwhile, the “Dove of Peace” Picasso had created for the 1949 Paris Peace Conference had caught on. It had become a symbol for the peace movement, the Communist Party, and other liberal groups. In the years that followed, Picasso agreed to create other peace doves for conferences across Europe.
The modern peace dove is a more whimsical bird than the 1949 original. This proud bird is portrayed in happy flight, bearing numerous bouquets of olive branches and flowers in its wings, beak, and feet.
one of the many versions of Picasso’s iconic “Dove of Peace”
(1)”Lines That Kept Moving and Knew No Boundaries,” by Smith, Roberta. New York Times, October 7, 2011.
(2) Hart, Tony. Famous Children: Picasso. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1994.
(3) Krull, Kathleen. Lives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (and What the Neighbors Thought). New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
(5) Clark, Hiro. Picasso: In His Words. New York: Welcome Books, 2002.
(6) Douglas, David. Viva Picasso: A Centennial Celebration 1881-1981. Studio, 1980.
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