Pablo Picasso: one of the defining artists of the 20th century and a primary figure behind the Cubism movement. Although he spent the bulk of his adult life in Paris, Barcelona is where the legendary painter called his true home in times of nostalgia and sadness.
Picasso was born in Málaga and later moved to A Coruña before his family decided to permanently settle in Barcelona in 1895 when he was just 13 years old. It’s here in Barcelona where Picasso studied, grew up, and thrived, providing an early foundation for one of Spain’s greatest artists.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Barcelona was amid rapid industrial growth and economic prosperity, embracing progressive ideas about art and society. The city had high ambitions and was undergoing an expansion in the form of the Eixample district beyond its ancient city walls and it was making a name for itself as one of Europe’s great cosmopolitan cities. Barcelona left a strong impression on a young Picasso, who lived here before moving to Paris in 1904.
He lived and worked in the same narrow alleyways and winding streets of the Gothic Quarter, El Born and Barceloneta that remain largely unchanged to this day. Retracing the footsteps of one of the most influential figures of modern art is a glimpse into the mind of the same streets, experiences, and sights that inspired a young Picasso and his subsequent artwork.
After the premature death of his 7-year-old sister Conchita, Picasso and his family sought for a change of scenery. His father José Ruiz y Blasco was a respected drawing instructor who accepted a placement at the Llotja School of Fine Arts in Barcelona.
After the family settled in their new home, Ruiz persuaded academy officials to allow his 13-year-old son to take an entrance exam. Picasso completed the assessment, which took about a month to complete, in just a single week. Despite being over five years younger than most of the students, he was accepted into the academy where he made artistic relationships that would last a lifetime.
At the turn of the century, this fine arts school occupied the Casa Llotja de Mar in Barceloneta, now used as a convention center. The Llotja School of Fine Arts once occupied the top floor of this neoclassical building in one of the city’s most lively areas. Picasso often expressed his distaste for formal education and hated being in class, preferring to be observing on the nearby streets. While there’s not much to see inside the building, it’s easy to see why a curious Picasso enjoyed this bustling location of Barcelona as his personal playground.
When Picasso and his family first arrived in Barcelona, they lived across from the Llotja School of Fine Arts on the ground floor of Passeig d’Isabell II, 4. On top of this building is where Picasso completed Rooftop of Les Cases d’En Xifré, his first painting in Barcelona that’s dated October 4th, 1895.
His family moved to a larger flat on the nearby Carrer de la Reina Cristina, 2 with the entrance coming on the corner of Carrer Llauder, 4. With scenic views of the Mediterranean Sea and its shores, this is where he completed his famous painting of Barceloneta Beach dated in 1896. Still in the infancy of his career, Picasso hadn’t yet stumbled onto his signature Cubist painting style that would change the trajectory of modern art and launch him into superstardom. Classical disciplines and art techniques instead defined his early years. The active landscape of this former fisherman’s quarter and its picturesque seaside architecture served as daily inspiration for the young Picasso. Today, Barceloneta Beach is still one of the best beaches in Spain for active traveler.
Opened in 1897 by Catalan artist Ramon Casas and his friend Pere Romeu, Els Quatre Gats was meant to hold gatherings of artists and as a concert and exhibition hall. It was Barcelona’s answer to Paris’ famous Le Chat Noir cabaret and nightclub in Montmartre. It became a famous meeting point for artists, writers and thinkers to exchange ideas, usually over a few too many glasses of wine.
Located in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, the establishment served as a spot for Picasso and his artist friends to think and socialize (and drink). He carried out his first ever public exhibition in the large room in 1900 at the age of 18. It was at Els Quatre Gats where Picasso soaked in Barcelona’s famous bohemian scene and the overwhelming artistic vibration of Barcelona.
Today it remains a famous restaurant, cafe, and bar with the same interior and decor as when Picasso frequented the establishment. Although it’s naturally a bit of a tourist trap nowadays, you can’t help but admire the modernist exterior of the building which was done by famous Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
Picasso’s family eventually moved from Barceloneta to the winding medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter. The first flat they moved into was demolished to make room for a cathedral dedicated to La Mercè, the patron saint of Barcelona, which still stands today. Picasso would practice sketching the buildings along Carrer de la Mercè, including the recognizable dome of this exact church while it was still under construction.
The Gothic Quarter was a ripe place of exploration for a young Picasso. His father rented various studios for the budding artist beginning in 1896. While you can’t actually enter these studios, as they’re either still in use or demolished, you can imagine the daily routine of the young painter that once trollied through these same narrow alleyways everyday. Many of the buildings of studios he bounced around still exist, such as those at Carrer de la Plata, 4 and Carrer dels Escudellers Blancs, 2.
Finally, head down to the Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya at Plaça Nova, 5 in front of the soaring Barcelona Cathedral. The friezes of this façade were created by Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar in 1960 from original sketches made by Picasso. Three separate sides of the building display different scenes at one of the busiest intersections in the city in which the Avinguda del Portal d’Angel leads to Plaça Catalunya and the narrow Carrer dels Boters makes its way to La Rambla.
A well-known art gallery in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, Sala Parés is where Picasso held his first commercial exhibition in 1901 at the age of 20. Here he exhibited a series of pastel drawings completed alongside Ramon Casas. Having been housed in the same building at Carrer de Petritxol, 5 since 1884, Sala Parés is one of the oldest art galleries in the world.
Although Picasso moved to Paris in 1904, it’s clear that the streets of Barcelona still have a magical influence over him. In fact, his most popular work of art, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, depicts five prostitutes in front of a well-known brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona. This painting had monumental significance because it’s considered to be a seminal piece of art in both the Cubist movement and modern art.
While the subject matter may not be the nicest thing for a city to boast about, it’s easy to see how the lively nature of the streets of Barcelona provide for ample inspiration. Carrer d’Avinyó, 44 is the building which housed the brothel, recognizable by its large wooden door. The painting now hangs as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, often described as one of the most important artworks in the genesis of contemporary painting.
Finish the tour off with a visit to the Picasso Museum located on Carrer Montcada in the district of El Born. Located in the heart of bohemian Barcelona, the museum is one of the best things to do in Spain and houses the largest collection of original works from the Spanish painter. Throughout over 3,800 works in total, there’s an especially rich array of early paintings and sketches, some donated by Picasso himself.
The Museum is a standing tribute to the artist and his close relationship with Barcelona through his adolescence and early career. It opened in 1963 and it was set up throughout the later part of his life according to his wishes by his personal secretary and friend, Jaume Sabartés.