The art of painting original arrangements composed of elements taken from conceived rather than perceived reality.
– Guillaume Apollinaire, The Beginnings of Cubism, 1912.

Cubism was a 20th century avant-garde art movement, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, that revolutionized European painting and sculpture, and inspired related movements in music and literature. The first branch of cubism, known as Analytic Cubism, was both radical and influential as a short but highly significant art movement between 1907 and 1911 in France. In its second phase, Synthetic Cubism, the movement spread and remained vital until around 1919, when the Surrealist movement gained popularity.

English art historian Douglas Cooper describes three phases of Cubism in his seminal book The Cubist Epoch. According to Cooper there was "Early Cubism", (from 1906 to 1908) when the movement was initially developed in the studios of Picasso and Braque; the second phase being called "High Cubism", (from 1909 to 1914) during which time Juan Gris emerged as an important exponent; and finally Cooper referred to "Late Cubism" (from 1914 to 1921) as the last phase of Cubism as a radical avant-garde movement.

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism's distinct characteristics.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the European cultural elite were discovering African, Micronesian and Native American art for the first time. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso were intrigued and inspired by the stark power and simplicity of styles of those foreign cultures. Around 1906, Picasso met Matisse through Gertrude Stein, at a time when both artists had recently acquired an interest in primitivism, Iberian sculpture, African art and African tribal masks. They became friendly rivals and competed with each other throughout their careers, perhaps leading to Picasso entering a new period in his work by 1907, marked by the influence of Greek, Iberian and African art. Picasso's paintings of 1907 have been characterized as Protocubism, as notably seen in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the antecedent of Cubism.

According to the English art historian, collector and author of The Cubist Epoch, Douglas Cooper, remarking on Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne "both of those artists were particularly influential to the formation of Cubism and especially important to the paintings of Picasso during 1906 and 1907". Cooper goes on to say however Les Demoiselles is often erroneously referred to as the first cubist painting. He explains, The Demoiselles is generally referred to as the first Cubist picture. This is an exaggeration, for although it was a major first step towards Cubism it is not yet Cubist. The disruptive, expressionist element in it is even contrary to the spirit of Cubism, which looked at the world in a detached, realistic spirit. Nevertheless, the Demoiselles is the logical picture to take as the starting point for Cubism, because it marks the birth of a new pictorial idiom, because in it Picasso violently overturned established conventions and because all that followed grew out of it.

Some believe that the roots of cubism are to be found in the two distinct tendencies of Paul Cézanne's later work: firstly to break the painted surface into small multifaceted areas of paint, thereby emphasizing the plural viewpoint given by binocular vision, and secondly his interest in the simplification of natural forms into cylinders, spheres, and cones.

However the cubists explored this concept further than Cézanne; they represented all the surfaces of depicted objects in a single picture plane, as if the objects had had all their faces visible at the same time. This new kind of depiction revolutionized the way in which objects could be visualized in painting and art.

The invention of Cubism was a joint effort between Picasso and Braque, then residents of Montmartre, Paris. These artists were the movement's main innovators. A later active participant was the Spaniard Juan Gris. After meeting in 1907 Braque and Picasso in particular began working on the development of Cubism. Picasso was initially the force and influence that persuaded Braque by 1908 to move away from Fauvism. The two artists began working closely together in late 1908–early 1909 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The movement spread quickly throughout Paris and Europe.

French art critic Louis Vauxcelles first used the term "cubism", or "bizarre cubiques", in 1908 after seeing a picture by Braque. He described it as "full of little cubes", after which the term quickly gained wide use although the two creators did not initially adopt it. Art historian Ernst Gombrich described cubism as "the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture - that of a man-made construction, a coloured canvas."

Cubism was taken up by many artists in Montparnasse and promoted by art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, becoming popular so quickly that by 1911 critics were referring to a "cubist school" of artists. However, many of the artists who thought of themselves as cubists went in directions quite different from Braque and Picasso. The Puteaux Group or Section d'Or was a significant offshoot of the Cubist movement; it included Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, his brothers Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, and Fernand Léger, and Francis Picabia. Other important artists associated with cubism include: Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Marie Laurencin, Max Weber, Diego Rivera, Marie Vorobieff, Louis Marcoussis, Jeanne Rij-Rousseau, Roger de La Fresnaye, Henri Le Fauconnier, Alexander Archipenko, František Kupka, Amédée Ozenfant, Jean Marchand, Léopold Survage, Patrick Henry Bruce among others. Section d'Or is basically just another name for many of the artists associated with cubism and orphism. Purism was an artistic offshoot of Cubism that developed after World War I. Leading proponents of Purism include Le Corbusier, Amédée Ozenfant, and Fernand Léger.

In 1913 the United States was exposed to cubism and modern European art when Jacques Villon exhibited seven important and large drypoints at the famous Armory Show in New York City. Braque and Picasso themselves went through several distinct phases before 1920, and some of these works had been seen in New York prior to the Armory Show, at Alfred Stieglitz's "291" gallery. Czech artists who realized the epochal significance of cubism of Picasso and Braque attempted to extract its components for their own work in all branches of artistic creativity—especially painting and architecture. This developed into Czech Cubism which was an avant-garde art movement of Czech proponents of cubism active mostly in Prague from 1910 to 1914.

Analytical Cubism

Analytical Cubism is one of the two major branches of the artistic movement of Cubism and was developed between 1908 and 1912. In contrast to Synthetic cubism, Analytic cubists "analyzed" natural forms and reduced the forms into basic geometric parts on the two-dimensional picture plane. Colour was almost non-existent except for the use of a monochromatic scheme that often included grey, blue and ochre. Instead of an emphasis on colour, Analytic cubists focused on forms like the cylinder, sphere and the cone to represent the natural world. During this movement, the works produced by Picasso and Braque shared stylistic similarities.

Both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque moved toward abstraction, leaving only enough signs of the real world to supply a tension between the reality outside the painting and the complicated meditations on visual language within the frame, exemplified through their paintings Ma Jolie (1911), by Picasso and The Portuguese (1911), by Braque.

In Paris in 1907 there was a major museum retrospective exhibition of the work of Paul Cezanne shortly after his death. The exhibition was enormously influential in establishing Cézanne as an important painter whose ideas were particularly resonant especially to young artists in Paris. Both Picasso and Braque found the inspiration for Cubism from Paul Cézanne, who said to observe and learn to see and treat nature as if it were composed of basic shapes like cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones. Picasso was the main analytic cubist, but Braque was also prominent, having abandoned Fauvism to work with Picasso in developing the Cubist lexicon.

Synthetic Cubism

Synthetic Cubism was the second main movement within Cubism that was developed by Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and others between 1912 and 1919. Synthetic cubism is characterized by the introduction of different textures, surfaces, collage elements, papier collé and a large variety of merged subject matter. It was the beginning of collage materials being introduced as an important ingredient of fine art work.

Considered the first work of this new style was Pablo Picasso's "Still Life with Chair-caning" (1911–1912), which includes oil cloth that was printed to look like chair-caning pasted onto an oval canvas, with text; and rope framing the whole picture. At the upper left are the letters "JOU", which appear in many cubist paintings and refers to the newspaper titled "Le Journal". Newspaper clippings were a common inclusion, physical pieces of newspaper, sheet music, and like items were also included in the collages. JOU may also at the same time be a pun on the French words jeu (game) or jouer (to play). Picasso and Braque had a friendly competition with each other and including the letters in their works may have been an extension of their game.

Whereas Analytic Cubism was an analysis of the subjects (pulling them apart into planes), Synthetic Cubism is more of a pushing of several objects together. Less pure than Analytic Cubism, Synthetic Cubism has fewer planar shifts (or schematism), and less shading, creating flatter space.

Far from being an art movement confined to the annals of art history, Cubism and its legacy continue to inform the work of many contemporary artists. Not only is cubist imagery regularly used commercially but significant numbers of contemporary artists continue to draw upon it both stylistically and perhaps more importantly, theoretically. The latter contains the clue as to the reason for cubism's enduring fascination for artists. As an essentially representational school of painting, having to come to grips with the rising importance of photography as an increasingly viable method of image making, cubism attempts to take representational imagery beyond the mechanically photographic and to move beyond the bounds of traditional single point perspective perceived, as though, by a totally immobile viewer. The questions and theories which arose during the initial appearance of cubism in the early 20th century are, for many representational artists, as current today as when first proposed.