Rembrandt & Picasso—The Masters of Paintings and Prints
No one will ever mistake a Rembrandt painting for a Picasso painting. Or a Rembrandt print with one by Picasso. Or any Picasso for a Rembrandt. And yet, no one can ever break the linkage between the two. The Old Master’s influence on the Modern Master is undeniable, as is the enormity of both their paintings and prints. Only the über-wealthy museums, institutions, organizations and individuals can even hope to own the great paintings from either. What is astonishing about their prints is that most everyone can still own an original Rembrandt or a Picasso. Not because they are less important artistically, rather because they are more available.
Rembrandt did not invent etching or prints but he certainly perfected them. He could tell an entire story in one of his diminutive works with such artistic and technical genius that, hundreds of years later, people are still in awe. He set the standard for his time, but more importantly, he set it for all time. He elevated the art of etching to unsurpassed heights. He humanized his art as not only being depictions of events, but also depictions of the human emotions that flowed into and past those events. In the process, untold numbers of generations could view his art and be immersed into the scenes. He could therefore connect with those people. Indeed, Rembrandt not only captured a scene, but those who view his scene. His use of darkness to show light is legendary, but so is his painterly way of combining lines, cross-hatching and ink that was hand-applied on his copper etching plates. His etchings were never two-dimensional—they were every bit as deep as his paintings. Deep into the third dimension physically, but also deep in meaning, thought and feeling.
His reach spans the centuries not only with art connoisseurs but artists themselves. He liberated artists from the restraints of past means and methods as he blazed a trail for artists to do things differently than their predecessors and teachers. That his influence stretched to such a diverse group as Turner, Delocroix, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Chagall, Manet and Picasso is testament to his unmatched power.
In examining the ties that bind Rembrandt with Picasso, it is too simple to note the influence of their muses, as most artists have muses. Picasso certainly had more than Rembrandt, but then again, Picasso re-invented himself in fundamental ways time and time again as he sought new challenges and forms of expression. In art and in muses.
It is equally unimportant to say that their signature paintings were gargantuan. Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” is now about 12 feet high and 14 feet long, although it was trimmed by several feet in 1715 in order to make it fit in its new location. Picasso’s “Guernica” is about 11 feet tall and 25 feet long.
Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (with the lines showing the trimmed area) compared with Picasso’s “Guernica” painted almost 300 years later.
It is true that Rembrandt died without riches, whereas Picasso died being well off. Again, this is meaningless, because Rembrandt made a lot of money in his day, as he was very highly respected and successful—the trouble was that he was more successful in spending money than in earning it.
Both were extremely talented from an early age. In his early 20s, Rembrandt was a tour de force in both painting and prints. Picasso entered his “Blue Period” at the age of 20, after the suicide of his close friend, Carlos Casagemas. His “Rose Period” then began about three years later. Picasso famously said that, “at 15 I painted likeVelazquez, and it took me 80 years to paint like a child.” It is not their status as child prodigies that bind them together. Over the centuries that separate the two, there have been innumerable wunderkinderwho had no influence on each other.
Importance of Rembrandt and Picasso
What is important is their influence on art. Rembrandt opened doors to future artists by showing what they could aspire to attain. Picasso showed that what he could attain was art.
Picasso said, “I was viewed as a master as a child. As adult, I always worked to find that child.” That might be true in terms of style, but certainly not in terms of subject matter—another thing he had in common with Rembrandt. Whereas Picasso once proclaimed that he doesn’t “paint as he sees it, he paints as he thinks it”, it might be said of Rembrandt that he painted as he felt it. Interestingly, Rembrandt’s art is considered unflatteringly realistic, yet at the same time, not overly accurate. The standards of the day dictated that the human form be idealized—essentially turning the human body into Greek sculptures.
In Albrecht Dürer‘s Adam and Eve (1504), the two are shown in perfect classic form, no different than if they were made of sculptured marble.
Rembrandt, on the other hand rendered them far lessperfectly,insteadfocusing on their emotions and human frailty when he completed his Adam and Eve (state II) (1638).
Rembrandt bristled at the artistic requirements imposed on his paintings while he was under the control of the Guild of St. Luke, and he couldn’t just do whatever he pleased. He saved that for his etchings. While his paintings were never ribald, they were at times risqué, as with his 1654 work,Woman Bathing in a Stream. His portrayal of his maid turned lover, turned common-law wife, Hendrickje Soffels, was not at all in keeping with the notion of idealization and was instead bordering on the voyeuristic—which meant that it was less patrician and more plebian in titillating appeal.
He specifically used models who were imperfect to show humanity in its imperfection. They were fleshy, saggy and marked, yet to Rembrandt, that was perfect.
Both Rembrandt and Picasso were iconoclasts who, charitably, dabbled in the seedy side of life while thumbing their noses at the establishment.
Rembrandt was the perfect gentleman when he dealt with most of his subject matter. He could weave around the pitfalls that separated the Catholic from the Protestant churches. He could deftly navigate through the social webs of high society. On the other hand, he blazed an entirely new trail when he decided to head off the beaten path. Without the constant scrutiny the Guild imposed on his paintings, he could let loose with his etchings, and did just that. In the process he was roundly and vociferously criticized for his crassness and disgusting artistry that every art critic and social stalwart rejected outright. His depiction of urination was a perfect example, when he created A Man Making Waterin 1630, or his attempt at inclusivity with his slightly later A Woman Making Water (1631).
Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt both depicted Diana. Rubens with his 1638 painting Diana and Callistoand Rembrandt in his 1631 work, Diana at the Bath. Aside from the subject being Diana, there are no other similarities in how the female nude is rendered.
Seated Female Nude (1631) might encapsulate what critics hated most about Rembrandt’s use of imperfect models (including cellulite and garter marks.) When compared with another period-contemporary work, (albeit by a Frenchman working in Italy, Nicolas Poussin) The Triumph of Neptune (1634) shows the classic female form to perfection.
Picasso honors Rembrandt
Picasso held Rembrandt in very high esteem. Rembrandt often did quick studies and sketches of things that interested him at that moment. For example, Picasso, at one point, while he was sketching three images of Marie-Thérèse, decided to add the head of Rembrandt wearing a feather-festooned beret. The work is called “Feuille d’études, profil de Marie-Thérèse et tête de Rembrandt au berêt[”Study sheet, profile of Marie-Thérèse and Rembrandt’s head with berêt”] (1973).
Picasso studied Rembrandt in the same way Rembrandt studied his predecessors, as happened when he created Jupiter and Andtiopein 1659, based on AnnnibaleCarracci’s1592work,VenusandaSatyr. Satyrs were lustful and lascivious Greek mythological creatures with parts of horses, humans and sometimes goats. Rembrandt made the creature even more lecherous than did Carracci. Picasso took Rembrandt’s version even a step further with the creature not content to simply look when he created Faun Revealing a Sleeping Woman (Jupiter and Antiope after Rembrandt) in 1936.
Rembrandt and Picasso shared the love of self-portraiture. Perhaps in the case of Rembrandt it was because it was so much less expensive than hiring models or bothering relatives to sit for him, but in any event, neither suffered from low self-esteem. Both created portraits of themselves throughout their lives.
Tintoretto, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (c. 1555)
“Rembrandt, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1634)”
Picasso, Joseph et la femme de Potiphar, d’après le Tintoret et Rembrandt [“Joseph and Potiphar’sWife, after Tintoretto ad Rembrandt”](1962)
Rembrandt’s etching, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” was based on one by Tintoretto that was eighty years old at the time. It was considered extremely graphic in terms of both sexual anatomy and eroticism, both overt and covert. Potiphar’s wife’s clinging and desperate forcefulness and Joseph’s rejection of her strong advances were subjects that were not dealt with in conversation, much less visual art. Female sexual appetites were never discussed nor depicted.
The bluntness with which this Biblical subject was handled was very shocking.
In contrast, Picasso’s tributeto, and interpretation of, the earlier two, required a good deal of interpretation by its viewers to be even obliquely rude, much less lewd.
Which is not tosay that Picasso’s work never strayed, or leaped, over the line of societal norms. He created art that also included fleshy and plump women (and men) who were depicted in less than flattering ways.
Picasso did go through a time in his career where he explored classicism, between the years 1921-1925—just after his multi-faceted forays into Cubism had waned. Picasso painted classical scenes prior to that, as with Maternityin 1909, during a time when he was heavily into the development of Cubism. Likewise, he painted Cubist and other paintings during the early 1920s. He painted subjects in styles as his creativity moved him.
For Picasso, phases were unimportant and self-limiting. Throughout his very long career, he freely moved from one style to another as he chose.
Phases were identified later by others, and only represented the areas he predominately favored during a given timeframe. After his neo-classicism, he then jumped into the increasingly-popular Surrealistic movement sweeping through the Parisian art scene.
After his exploration of Surrealism had run its course,he moved to mastery of still life art. Still lifes are powerful meditations on mortality, combining asense of despair and melancholy. By evoking the traditional form of vanitas (“humans have no power in life”) and memento mori (“reminderofmortality”),he follows in a long tradition of reminding the viewer of the transience of human existence.
The vanitas still life, with its roots in Dutch and Spanish art, employs a formal language of symbols—such as candles, skulls, books, food, flowers or insects—to warn against pride and material pleasures. Still life art traditionally also celebrates the kitchen, the table and the bounty of nature.
Many of Picasso’s still lifes feature human and animal skulls, often those of goats, owls and bulls. Each has symbolic significance. For example, human skulls symbolize death from age, war, famine and pestilence. War played a central role in shaping Picasso. It was, afterall, the Spanish Civil War, and more specifically the interactions between rebelle ader General Francisco Franco with German Chancell or Adolf Hitler, that led to the horrific bombing by the Luftwaffe of the Spanish town of Guernica. That formed the inspiration for his signature piece of art as a political statement to draw the world’s attention to the fascist act of genocide against a civilian population.
Picasso made his home in Paris and, unlike countryman JoanMiró, stayed there during World War II. A Nazi officer reportedly visited Picasso’s studio during the occupation and asked hima bout his Guernic apainting. “Did you do that?” the Nazi asked. Picasso is said to have responded, “No, you did.”
Picasso was intrigued for many years with the idea to re-interpret the great art of the past into a new vocabulary. Toward the end of World War II, as Paris was being liberated, he completed Triumph of Pan, after a work by the same name done during the height of Rembrandt’s career by Nicolas Poussin. The work shows a mythical celebration before an idol of Pan, the Greek god of all thing nature, woods and fields.
Pablo Picasso, Triumph of Pan (1944)
Nicolas Poussin, Triumph of Pan (1636)
A few years later, he undertook to re-interpret Gustave Courbet’s Young Ladies on the Bank of the Seine.
Pablo Picasso, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (1950)
Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies on the Bank of the Seine, (<1857)
Starting in December 1954, Picasso began 15 versions reinterpreting Eugène Delacroix’s, Women of Algiers (1834). His “Version ‘O’” was sold in 1997 for less than $32M, and then in 2015 became the highest priced Picasso, selling for more than $179M.
Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers (1834)
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955)
In the last half of 1957, Picasso undertook a massive project to explore variations on the 300th anniversary of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. In all, he found 58 ways to conquer the 17th century Spanish Master. Interestingly, seven years before he found the time and inspiration to undertake this mission, he said,
“If someone wants to copy Las Meninas, entirely in good faith, for example, upon reaching a certain point and if thatone was me, I would say…what if you put them a little more to the right or left? I’ll try to do it my way, forgetting about Velázquez. The test would surely bring me to modify or change the light because of having changed the position of a character. So, little by little, that would be a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter, but would be my Meninas.”
Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)
Pablo Picasso, Las Meninas (1957)
Picasso studied Manet’s painting, Lunch on the Grass, beginning in 1932. Almost three decades later, he began reinterpreting it—with 150 sketches, 27 paintings, 3 linocuts and 18 cardboard models (for his sculptures).
Édouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862/63)
Pablo Picasso, Luncheon on the Grass (March 3, 1960)
The fact that Picasso was able to create that number of variations is remarkable. What makes it all the more noteworthy is that he did so with sketches, paintings, prints and models. His range is precisely the reason why, even today, collectors can still acquire Picasso’s art. Original Picasso fine art prints that are affordable. For now.
Picasso, Colombe volant (à l’arc-en-ciel) (1952)
Picasso was as critically important to the 20th century as Rembrandt was to the 17th and Monet to the 19th. Both Picasso and Rembrandt were absolute masters of their mediums—both defy superlatives in their abilities in sketches, paintings and prints. Market value is driven by supply and demand, and the extremely limited supply of Rembrandt and Picasso oils has been spoken for, likely to never reappear in any marketplace. However, the equally astounding prints have a greater supply, and therefore typical citizen collectors still have opportunities to own their masterpieces—or perhaps more precisely, to enjoy them as they care for them, thereby allowing their children and grandchildren to also cherish them.
Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D. • February 12, 2020