In April, 1973, the month that Picasso died, he was asked to choose an image to be used as a poster for a show of recent work at the Palace of the Popes, in Avignon. He picked “The Young Painter,” an oil sketch he’d done a year earlier, at the age of ninety—a vision of his dewy beginnings, not his bitter end. The look is naïve and apparently artless, but the hand that draws it is heavy with memories, not just of a Barcelona boyhood but of the archive of painting. The apple-cheeked youth recalls another young painter at the outset of his career, the twenty-three-year-old Rembrandt, picturing himself and his calling around 1629, in a panel not much bigger than this page. The faces are unmistakably similar: gingerbread-clownish beneath a wide-brimmed hat; snub nose; eyes stylized as ogling black holes, as if drawn by a child. The captured moment, in both images, is solemn; the young men pause before their work, brushes in hand, as if locked in a creative trance. A raking light, the illumination of an idea, strikes their faces. “I don’t paint what I see,” Picasso was given to saying. “I paint what I know.” Rembrandt, his picture tells us, felt the same way: the mind instructing the hand.
It was an unlikely pairing—the cerebral modernist who had made a point of expelling sentiment from painting going wistful over the master whose every brush mark was loaded with emotion. But the fixation was real. The shelves in Picasso’s studio at Mougins, in the South of France, were packed with Rembrandtiana, including all six volumes of Otto Benesch’s edition of the drawings. And though Picasso could not have seen Rembrandt’s little panel first-hand (it was in Boston), he must have plucked that archetypal image of setting forth from one of his books. Radical remaker of art though he was, Picasso always balanced his iconoclastic instincts with a compulsive historicism. In 1936, he had agreed to become absentee director of the Prado, while Madrid was under Fascist siege. Constantly measuring himself for admission to the pantheon, Picasso evidently felt that taking down the masters also meant taking them on, and in his time he had mixed it up with, among others, Grünewald, Poussin, Cranach, Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. At the end, though, it was Rembrandt of whom, according to his friend and biographer Pierre Cabanne, he spoke “ceaselessly.” The haunted self-portraits of those final years, all stubble and cavernous eye sockets, were surely prompted by the series of pitilessly truthful mirror images that Rembrandt executed in his last decade: a dispassionate scrutiny of time’s ruin recorded in heavy jowls and pouches. Occasionally, as in the self-portrait as St. Paul (in the Rijksmuseum), Rembrandt arched his eyebrows in an expression of quizzical self-recognition, the chastened sinner who might yet imagine redemption. Picasso’s face-making, on the other hand, is showy with self-contempt: so many glaring skulls.
Rembrandt first appeared in Picasso’s visual imagination in the nineteen-thirties, as Janie Cohen points out in her essay “Picasso’s Dialogue with Rembrandt’s Art,” in the volume “Etched on the Memory,” at a time when the Spanish artist was making an ambitious “suite” of a hundred prints for the dealer Ambroise Vollard. Two qualities in Rembrandt’s printmaking had sparked a sense of comradeship across the centuries. First, there was the experimental freedom that Rembrandt allowed himself—sketching ideas on the etching plate and then reworking them, adding other designs, sometimes related and sometimes not—so that the over-all image developed organically. A “trial” etching might have a face, a tree, and a single eye (his eye) on the same plate, and Picasso imagined this multiplicity of visions as an antecedent for his collage play with discontinuous fragments of objects. But Picasso also identified with Rembrandt’s complicated relationship with his models, making them objects, indistinguishably, of aesthetic curiosity and erotic possession.
Picasso’s riffs on Rembrandt are all about lusty looking; in his version of Rembrandt’s “Jupiter and Antiope,” he casts himself as the horned “Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman,” one hand lifting a bedsheet, the other reaching for a voluptuous breast. Rembrandt’s original is in fact a bolder and weirder exercise in erotic inspection, the god in faun form leaning over the woman’s gently exposed nakedness with an expression of disconcerting benevolence. His gaze, emphasized by a touch of deep-scored drypoint at the eyes, is concentrated entirely on the darkly cross-hatched groin, whose details Rembrandt (after Titian the greatest soft-porn tease in art) has made tantalizingly invisible. But it’s Rembrandt who takes most pains to wipe any hint of the ornamental from his nude. Antiope’s chubby chin is lifted, her mouth slightly opened as if in a snore, snouty nostrils upturned, an arm wrapped about her head exposing tufts of armpit hair. Picasso, too much the fastidious classicist to linger on armpits, merely summarizes the sleeper’s face, in the manner of his countless nude paintings of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walther.
These two obsessions—experimental printmaking and the gaze of disingenuous desire—came together at one serendipitous moment. In 1934, while Picasso was preparing a plate with multiple profiles of Marie-Thérèse, the etching ground cracked. According to his friend and dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Picasso improvised around the accident precisely the way Rembrandt was thought to have done in his free-form “sketchpad” plates, some of which anthologized different images of his wife, Saskia. “I said to myself: it’s ruined,” Picasso noted. “I’m going to do any old thing on it. I began to scribble. It became Rembrandt.” The doodle did turn into Rembrandt’s face, though in all likelihood it wasn’t quite the pure accident that Picasso made it out to be. Because his plate of the Marie-Thérèses recalls the Saskias, he was probably, at some level, thinking of Rembrandt before he’d even begun. But, once Rembrandt was summoned, he and Picasso became one and the same. Rembrandt’s face on that etching grafts him in the prime of his smiling self-congratulation—complete with curly whiskers and feathered beret—onto the puffier, double-chinned visage of Picasso’s own middle age.
Looking at these “Rembrandt” prints a few years later, Picasso dryly commented to his mistress Françoise Gilot that “every painter takes himself for Rembrandt.” He was right. No artist in the Western canon, not Raphael, not Michelangelo, not even Goya, has been so compulsively co-opted as heroic alter ego as Rembrandt. Painters like Turner, Delacroix, and van Gogh, who self-consciously saw themselves as Rembrandt’s apostles, believed that he, more than any other artist, had modelled forms with light and color rather than with line. The luminous shimmer of paint, not the hard-edged purity of classical sculpture, was their lodestar, and no one, they thought, had liberated its radiance quite like Rembrandt.
There was, to be sure, a good deal of romantic projection involved in seeing Rembrandt as the patriarch of painterly integrity. The poignant trajectory of his biography, from precocious swagger to humiliation, satisfied a sentimental craving for punished temerity. And, while many of the early stories were fanciful (for example, his self-taught simplicity, when in fact he attended both Latin School and, briefly, Leiden University), the documented facts played directly into a narrative of heroic, if not reckless, innovation: the miller’s son, mugging in the mirror to get the passions right for his history paintings, and plucked from obscurity by the Prince of Orange’s talent scout; the dizzy ascent to fame and riches in money-drunk sixteen-thirties Amsterdam, the supermarket of the world; the free-spending owner of prime real estate, dressing himself and his wife in morally dubious poses; a painter who pushed conventions, especially in portraiture and group portraiture; the crash into insolvency and the death of Saskia, of children, of Hendrickje, the companion of his later years; the man, in his sixties, staring again into the mirror, the mugging gone and only humble self-recognition left.
But for every romantic who saw in this career an original free spirit, the inventor of l’art pour l’homme, there were severe classicists who condemned his naturalism as self-indulgence. They despised his juvenile relish for the seamier side of the human condition: urinating beggars and babies, cellulite-heavy nudes; copulating lovers in a bed, a fornicating monk in a cornfield. They detested the way he rubbed their noses in a gleeful mixture of the sacred and the profane. Was it really necessary to have a dog defecate in front of the Good Samaritan? It was precisely this contempt for academic propriety—and for the sacred hierarchy of the genres, with its disdain for importing the rawness of daily life into the refined matter of history paintings—which made Rembrandt a hero to the romantics.
The default mode of modern writing about art is to despise any notion of singularity as so much overheated genius-fetishism. So the idea that Rembrandt was the original democrat of subject matter—a maverick who flouted convention to follow the bidding of his muse, and who did push the boundaries of what painting (or, for that matter, printmaking) could do well beyond any contemporary conventions—is dismissed as sentimental anachronism. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that, during the quatercentenary commemorations of his birth, last year, so little attention was paid to what might be called “the Rembrandt afterglow.” In this coolly empirical view, wary of perpetuating platitudes—such as his supposed indifference to the “rules” of art, his rough way with some patrons, the self-consciously dramatic manipulation of his paint—the historical Rembrandt was attentive to his patrons and gregarious rather than misanthropic, and abided by the rules of art far more than he sought to violate them. But Gary Schwartz’s superb new “The Rembrandt Book” makes plain the disputes between Rembrandt and his patrons over the displeasing difference between what they thought they had commissioned and the delivered work. So it may well be the case that Rembrandt the sociable conformist is more mythical than Rembrandt the “heretic” (as one of his classicist critics puts it). It has never been in doubt that he willfully offended classical principles of decorum. Fifty years ago, Seymour Slive’s “Rembrandt and His Critics” analyzed the strong responses to Rembrandt in the name of upholding the norms of classical decorum. Classicism’s first principle decreed that only the representation of ideal forms could give art universal authority, while Rembrandt, these critics asserted, believed the opposite: that only a shockingly unedited version of natural truth could serve art’s highest purpose.
This makes Picasso’s attraction to Rembrandt even odder, for the Spanish artist was far more of a classicist than a Romantic. Picasso’s work of the nineteen-twenties and thirties is populated by drawn and painted meditations on the endurance of classicism, and no one performed exercises in the economy of classical line with more elegant finesse. But Picasso was a classicist with a difference: an artist capable of recalling the elements of ideal form precisely in order to puncture its pretensions. Plaster busts sit in his studio across from nudes with mischievously scrambled body parts. A classical head with both eyes seen frontally but situated on a profile isn’t really a classical head. The world in which he wandered was Dionysian, prowled by satyrs and Minotaurs—the ominous bestiary that modernist idealism never managed to expel. Picasso recognized in Rembrandt an ancestor of his own dangerous visual intelligence, which could move freely between the aesthetic convenience of the nude and the messier, sexier reality of the naked model: etched images of half-dressed women warming themselves by the stove. Nothing like that stripping truth would happen again until Manet and Degas.
Picasso and Matisse thought there was what they called a “chain” that connected their understanding of modernism with certain older masters—Velázquez and Goya as well as Rembrandt—who had begun the work of having art ask awkward questions about its own conventions: in this case, the comfortable piety of the nude. That makes Rembrandt’s half-naked women (except in the modesty of their undress) the true conceptual ancestors of Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” two hundred and fifty years later. So the inspirational Rembrandt might be at least as important as the historical Rembrandt.
If art’s highest purpose was to make visible what Sir Joshua Reynolds called “invariable” ideas of beauty, Rembrandt was compromised by his earthiness. If art’s fulfillment came from the harmonious deployment of light and shade, Rembrandt would be found wanting for the jarring extravagance of his chiaroscuro and his contempt for subtle modulations of tone. If self-effacing absorption within the purity of art’s realm was what you were after, Rembrandt’s shameless appeal to the beholder, his addiction to the human theatre (often starring himself), the aggressive marks of his own heavy hand were repellently self-indulgent. Reynolds, who was both an admirer and a collector (and who painted a portrait of himself as a young man in an obviously Rembrandtian manner), nonetheless found “The Night Watch”—that explosive, centrifugal discharge of civic energy, at once brilliantly controlled and feverishly liberated—a dismaying, incoherent chaos. He also thought it “extraordinary that Rembrandt should have taken so much pains” on the “Susanna” in the Mauritshuis in The Hague “and have made at last so very ugly and ill-favoured a figure.”
But Reynolds was prepared to forgive Rembrandt his excesses and his wanton disregard for proper finish, because, like many eighteenth-century writers, he considered him a master colorist. When the Romantics acclaimed Rembrandt as an unsurpassed dramatist of light and color, they turned on its head the assertion that his naturalism belonged to a lesser order of vision than classical idealism. Their message was: Do not confuse common subjects with prosaic painting; Rembrandt proves the opposite—that the divine lives within the husk of mortal things. The critic William Hazlitt, for whom Rembrandt was indisputably “a man of genius,” described him in 1817 as “the least commonplace in his grossness of all men” and “the least fastidious of the imitators of nature,” for “he took any object, he cared not what, how mean soever in form, colour and expression, and from the light and shade which he threw upon it, it came out gorgeous from his hands.” Truth to nature, which for Hazlitt was “the soul of art,” was, therefore, the gateway to poetic vision, not the plodding transcription of matter.
Turner was even more emphatic. Rembrandt, he said in an 1811 lecture to the students at the Royal Academy, threw over common subjects a “veil of matchless colour” so that “the Eye dwells so completely enthrall’d [that it] thinks it a sacrilege to pierce the mystic shell of colour in search of form.” In other words, forget about traditional drawing and composition. It was as a painter who modelled with light that Rembrandt had done what the critics had declared impossible—revealing, without the clutter of symbolism, the inner mysteries of outward things, including the human form and face. He was the perfect painter precisely because he conveyed both surface and interior, flesh and spirit, body and mind. While Rembrandt’s earliest biographers had supposed him to be the illiterate friend of beggars and boors (and Saskia, the burgomaster’s daughter, a simple peasant girl), the nineteenth-century writers thought him a profound thinker, Denker und Dichter.
They had a point. Rembrandt was, in essence, a conceptual artist, who manifested his ideas not through classical emulation and high finish but through a sketchy roughness that preserved the lightning strike of what Delacroix called the première pensée. It was that direct hit of the imagining mind that distinguished true art, registering the flux of life, its contingent, temporal quality, the buddings and sheddings that gave human existence its majestic poignancy. Paradoxically, slick finish lied about nature and humanity. A broken surface, made with slashes and stabs and unconcerned to cover every corner of the canvas, better caught the emotive reality of lived life, an unpredictable affair, sometimes reticently withdrawn, sometimes so exuberantly full that it could never be contained within the hard-edged line. That was why not just van Gogh—a besotted idolater of Rembrandt—but a whole succession of practitioners of the expressively loaded brush, from Chaim Soutine to Frank Auerbach, have looked back to Rembrandt as having struck the first great blow to rid art of the callow equation between optical appearance and lived experience.
It was those high-minded connoisseurs the brothers Goncourt who, in 1861, spelled out the relationship between Rembrandt’s athletic treatment of the paint surface and the expression of human vitality: “Never has the human form, living and breathing and beating in the light, been conveyed by the brush as by his.” In Rembrandt’s work, “flesh is painted, heads are drawn and modelled as if they emerged physically from the canvas, through a kind of tattoo of colours, a melted mosaic, a moving swarm of dabs which seems like . . . the palpitation of skin in sunlight.”
The transference of that vitality effect from the geometric reproduction of illusory space according to the rules of Renaissance perspective to the vibrating paint surface itself was the beginning of modernism. And though the broken plumes of Titian’s late brushwork and the dashes and blotches of Velázquez’s painting were also unprecedented departures from high finish, Rembrandt’s modernist devotees were right to hail him as their patriarch, however innocent he may have been of willed novelty. If Picasso recruited Velázquez and Manet to the modernist ancestry, how could he not see Rembrandt as the great inaugurator? All art, to some extent, attempts to stand against the transient nature of human experience by supplying an alternative vitality. But often the laborious attempt at “lifelikeness” risks ending up duplicating deadness. Rembrandt went the opposite way, achieving unprecedented liveliness by marking his portraits with the spoiling work of time, vitality achieved through the candid acceptance of mortality. That way, the moderns correctly saw, he commanded a peerless ability to register fleshly human presence.
For instance, Rembrandt knew the ostensible truth of local color to be less important than getting its changing tones as it passed through variations of light and shade; that way, color itself became organic. Compositions like “The Night Watch,” he gambled, would come alive not through an accumulation of posed portraits but through their atmospheric integration into an irregularly lit drama. The nineteenth-century painter Eugène Fromentin could not have been more mistaken when he wrote, “The country, the place, the moment, the subject, the men, the objects have disappeared in the stormy phantasmagoria of his palette.” It was precisely because, in defiance of any precedent, Rembrandt whipped up that storm that the Amsterdam harquebusiers march from “The Night Watch” toward us, from their time to ours, with undiminished élan.
In the nineteen-sixties, after a thirty-year absence, Rembrandt came calling again, as Cohen points out, entering Picasso’s increasingly morbid meditations on his own place in the pantheon. Picasso had undergone surgery for (depending on your sources) either his prostate or his bowel, but, in any case, a procedure that he thought had made him impotent. It’s a commonplace that the artist who liked to masquerade as bull or Minotaur equated sexual and creative potency. (Indeed, one of the Vollard prints depicts a blind Minotaur in exactly the same attitude as the blind Tobit groping across a room in Rembrandt’s etching.) If Picasso had made a variation of Rembrandt’s “Bathsheba” (in the Louvre) back in the thirties, he might have incorporated himself into the painter’s-eye view, which is also King David’s as he spies on the perfect nude’s ablutions, watching her read his summons to the royal presence and bed. But in his post-op satirical mood Picasso gave Bathsheba the features of his wife, Jacqueline, while making himself, grotesquely, the grinning maidservant washing her mistress’s feet in preparation for the royal rape.
Depicting himself as a dwarfish voyeur unmanned by the proximity of imperious nudes, Picasso had even greater need of his fantasy Rembrandt, the artist enacting his virility with his brush. Rembrandt’s startling portrait of himself as the Prodigal Son, unsubtly hoisting aloft a long, cylindrical goblet of wine, while Saskia, in the guise of a plump tavern whore, perches on his lap, became in Picasso’s etched version a piece of ornamental pornography. His Saskia wears high heels, tart’s lipstick, and a lurid grin, and, thanks to the Cubist convention of simultaneous front and rear depiction, can flash all her graphically detailed pudenda.
Picasso had become the emasculated onlooker in a perversely imagined Rembrandtian theatre of the senses; others would have to do his strutting and rutting for him. First, improbably, was the central figure in “The Night Watch,” the well-named, for Picasso’s purposes, Captain Frans Banning Cocq. Sometimes Picasso would project a slide of the painting on his studio wall, and from the uproar of that scene Captain Banning Cocq would stride into his drawings, paintings, and prints as the Musketeer, gripping his officer’s cane, especially when confronted by a mighty nude. In one strangely beautiful aquatint, the Musketeer marches, hand on cane, not across an Amsterdam bridge but toward another stockinged woman offering herself, thighs splayed, from within a curtained bed.
Picasso’s recruitment of Rembrandt as the sponsor for his own immortalization culminated, three years before his death, in a sacrilegious borrowing from Rembrandt’s most theatrical etching, “Ecce Homo,” Pilate’s display of Christ before the people. In the Rembrandt etching, the Saviour is brought out as if for a curtain call, hands bound, on a high stage; spectators look out from lead-paned windows, an ill-assorted crowd (in the first five states of the etching) jostling below. Picasso borrowed the proscenium stage show but replaced the mocked Jesus with himself, turbaned, but pathetically reduced in stature: the impotent potentate. Gathered around him, onstage, in the stalls, peering down from the gods, is the teeming cast of characters who have populated his life and work: nudes on and off horses; incarnations of himself as diapered baby-Pablo; Pierrot-Pablo; and, in imitation of the Musketeer, spear-bearing Pablo. In place of the jeering crowd calling for the crucifixion of Jesus there is, predictably, his seraglio, etched in as many styles as he had had lovers and wives.
Self-mockery (just about) saves this “Theatre of Picasso,” as he called it, from egomania. Picasso probably knew of Rembrandt’s disturbing final self-portrait, in which he posed as the Greek artist Zeuxis dying of a fit of bilious cackles as he laughed at the old woman whose portrait he was painting. Among the spectators smiling down at Picasso’s final act are the bulb-nosed faces of the Rembrandt-Picasso the painter fantasized he had become.
Rembrandt had the life force in his hands, right to the end. That’s why Picasso adamantly refused to think of him—or his other mentor-masters—as belonging to “the past.” “To me there is no past or future in art,” he said in the early nineteen-twenties. “The art of the great painters who lived in other times is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” Timelessness is not always an empty cliché; sometimes, as the ninety-year-old Picasso knew when he reached toward Rembrandt as a tonic against extinction, it is full of sustaining truth.