Discover the path to worldwide fame from his early life in Madrid with this extensive biography of the life of Juan Gris. It follows his path to become a key contributor to the Cubist art movement as well as covering the many fellow creatives that inspired him along the way.
This biography will also attempt to draw in all of the different artistic disciplines in which he was involved, as frequently he is only referred to as a Cubist painter who was connected to both Picasso and Braque. In truth, his imprint on the Cubist movement was considerable and unique and Gris was also highly skilled in a number of other artistic disciplines including sculpture and design. It was actually his drawing skills which initially opened doors to the budding student as he sought the best tutoring possible to make the most of his potential. Such opportunities would always be aggressively fought for, and so his ability as a draughtsman would ultimately prove crucial to all the followed in the decades that followed.
The portrait of the artist displayed to the left was an original painting by Amedeo Modigliani and you can learn more about Portrait of Juan Gris from 1915 here. This Italian was just one of the many controversial but highly innovative artists who embraced the young Spaniard after his move to the open minded part of Paris in which they mostly lived. They frequently used each other as inspiration for portrait paintings, with Gris himself completing several depictions of his close friend and artistic rival, Pablo Picasso. He also made use of his own family too, as shown with this Portrait of Madame Gris. The strange fact around his career is that he is one of Madrid's most famous artists in history, yet produced almost all of his notable work in France. You can say similar for Picasso too, though his reputation transcends national boundaries and dominates 20th century art right across the world - he is simply 'Picasso'.
It would be the artist's role as a commercial illustrator in his early years that would help him to leave a bold and concise finish to most of his paintings, which immediately allowed his work within the Cubist movement to achieve a uniqueness of style. He could deliver professional pieces that would be easier to sell, and he perhaps understand the commercial world of art and design better because of his earlier roles. It is this same route into the art world taken by Lichtenstein and Warhol that would also have given the same competitive edge to their careers as well. Gris would also be less willing to fight against traditional art forms which was the intention of several other members of this revolutionary group of artists. He was content in making a successful living and promoting modern art but without feeling the need to decry or disrespect anything that had gone before.
Gris is generally regarded as having been fairly shy and awkward as a child, indeed he was also labelled as naive by Lipchitz who was a friend of his. Letters that have since been uncovered from his lifetime have also backed up these impressions about his character which remained fairly similar throughout his life, even with the success that he had as an artist. He was the one member of the Cubist movement to be born in a capital city, yet his attitude was always far more provincial than was the case with any of Picasso, Leger or Braque. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison as all of the other three would move to large cities at a fairly young age, with Picasso's family heading for Barcelona when he was barely in his teenage years.
Even as a young man, Gris is known to have been fairly sombre in his outlook, yet we did see sparks of life through his humour that was delivered via caricatures. Some have painted his personality in more positive ways but the most common has been that he felt a sense of melancholy throughout most of his life, with his brilliance sometimes breaking through this barrier to entertain on social occasions. Some have also claimed that his mood became more and more unstable with age, though with so many conflicting opinions it is hard to conclude anything with any great certainty. Of course, we must also consider his illness later in life, but the opinions before and after this period are equally inconsistent.
We have learnt that Gris' time at the School of Arts and Sciences was somewhat formulaic and did not inspire him, nor develop his techical skills particularly. That said, it does not appear to have softened his will to follow an artistic path. Engineering was, of course, his main focus of study during these early stages and perhaps there may have been some technical and theoretical learnings from this that he could later apply to his artistic work. At this stage, no thorough investigation has ever been taken into his drawings as a child and young man, which does leave certains holes in our knowledge of his artistic development. It seems an extraordinary thing to say about the city of Madrid, but at this stage of his life this was not a city with any great artistic drive or influence. Gris would spend time learning about the Art Nouveau movement, which featured artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Antoni Gaudi, but soon after the death of his father he realised that his career would only develop if he left this city behind and headed to Paris, which he did in 1906.
The artist would pass away on the 11th of May, 1927, at the age of 40. He had been experiencing persistent health problems for over two years and his death was neither sudden nor unexpected. Despite that, as well as his normal mood of melancholy, even before his poor health, he would continue to produce paintings, watercolors, gouaches, drawings, prints and book illustrations right up until his passing. This was a display of passion that perhaps would not always be noticeable due to his understated character which bordered on the shy and nervous. Sadly in his final years he would be forced to move regularly, which was entirely unsuitable for someone struggling with health issues. His bouts of Asthma were particularly draining. He would move between Toulon, Boulogne, Hyeres and Puget-Theniers before returning to Paris at the start of 1927. On May the 13th the artist was buried at Boulogne. His funeral would be an informal occasion which drew the creative minds that had influenced his career, or been influenced by Gris' own work, from across France and Spain.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.