Spanish cubist painter Juan Gris pushed the boundaries of Cubism to its logical conclusion. Besides Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, he was considered the most rational of the cubists, often referred to as "the demon of logic", and one of the first and greatest exponents of the cubist elite.
Juan Gris was born Jose Victoriano Gonzalez on March 13, 1887 in Madrid, the thirteenth child of a rich Castilian merchant. At fifteen, he enrolled at the School of Arts and Manufactures in Madrid to study engineering. During this time, his drawings appeared in local magazines and gained such popularity that he abandoned his engineering studies for an artistic career. From 1904 to 1905, he studied painting with the academic artist José Maria Carbonero.
In an attempt to avoid military conscription in 1906, he adopted the name Juan Gris, moved to Paris, and gravitated to the Montmartre tenement known as the Bateau-Lavoir where Picasso lived. He continued to create humorous drawings for papers such as L’assiette au beurre and Le Charivari in order to finance more serious undertakings such as his series of large Post-Impressionist still-lifes composed of everyday objects.
Fortunate enough to have witnessed Cubism in its earliest phase, Gris eagerly made his way towards abstraction. In 1911, he began to paint in oils, in the Analytical Cubist manner of his friends Braque and Picasso. His first exhibition at a little gallery run by Clovis Sagot displayed a highly original use of prismatic colors and floating compositions.
As Juan Gris gained notoriety, he was invited to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1912. By this time, he had developed a personal Cubist style as viewed in ‘Homage to Picasso’, a portrait of Picasso wearing a military uniform, sitting cross-legged with a palette in hand. His work evolved at a rapid pace, moving from Analytical cubism to Synthetic Cubism. This new style allowed him freedom in his compositional structures by enabling him to develop subtler patterns of overlapping planes.
D.H. Kahnweiler became Juan Gris’ art dealer. When Kahnweiler was forced into exile at the outbreak of World War I, the government seized his gallery stock leaving the artist destitute. In 1916, he signed himself over to Léonce Rosenberg, and had his first major solo show at Rosenberg's Galerie l'Effort Moderne in Paris in 1919. When Kahnweiler returned a year later and slipped back into place as Juan Gris’ dealer, he declared, "I had left behind a young painter whose works I liked. I had returned to find a master." Two great pieces of that time are ‘Violin and Glass’ (1918) and ‘Harlequin at a Table’ (1919).
In 1920, when Gris suffered a serious attack of pleurisy, some of the boldest and most mature works of his career were created. Landscape-still lifes that compress interiors and exteriors into synthetic cubist compositions such as ‘Le Canigou’ (1921) and ‘Two Pierrots’(1922) are good examples.
A move to Boulogne led Gris to expand his talents into the costume, set design, sculpture and book illustration fields. He designed the costumes and scenery for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and for Les Tentations de la Berë, which premiered in 1924.
In 1925, Juan Gris had his first (and last) international exhibition outside France, at the Flechtheim Gallery in Duesseldorf. His health began to deteriorate as he developed bronchitis, followed by asthma, and finally by uremia. During this period of illness, he made frequent visits to the south of France. The artist died in Boulogne-sur-Seine on May 11, 1927 at the age of forty, leaving behind his wife Josette, his son Georges, and his art.