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.
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:
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).
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).
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” 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)
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).
The model for the famous “peace dove” was one of artist Henri Matisse ‘s doves.
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.
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.
(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.