We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The drawing skills of Picasso compared to the Old Masters

This article has nothing really to do with politics or so forth, but it caught my eye as an excellent piece of analysis of a man’s reputation, not least a reputation that had been assiduously cultivated by the man himself, Pablo Picasso:

“They say that I can draw better than Raphael”, Gertrude Stein recorded Picasso as saying. “And they’re probably right. Perhaps I even draw better.” Picasso made this boast in claiming his right to creative freedom. The truth, however, is that Picasso not only did not draw better than Raphael, he may well have had a very limited understanding of how Raphael drew.

So writes someone called Catesby Leigh, in Standpoint magazine.

The author of the piece looks at an actual attempt by Picasso to draw a human form – a man called Vollard – in the manner of the Old Masters, such as Ingres. The commentary reminds of me of when one of my early efforts at school was given a fairly dusty appraisal by my arts teacher:

For starters, Vollard just isn’t put together quite right. Most problematically, he appears to be missing a goodly portion of his jawbone. His face reads like a rather shallow, U-shaped mask. As a result the structure of the side of his head and its engagement with the neck is badly resolved. Apart from the head, Picasso lavished the most care on the other unclothed portion of Vollard’s anatomy: the hands. Surely he recalled Ingres’s countless masterful hand studies from his Montauban visit. Vollard’s fingers in particular are modeled with excruciating care — a far cry from the familiar Picasso bravura. Even so the back of the outer hand, like the wrist of the partly covered hand, is a lumpen mass and not the articulated anatomical form it should be.

Picasso also failed to draw Vollard’s rump properly. He treated it, along with the better part of his upper left leg, as one big, flat receding plane, with the delineated folds in the trousers of his suit contributing nothing to its modelling. Shading lines continue straight back from the rump’s outline into the space between it and the back of the chair. This is a violation of one of the most elementary canons of classical draftsmanship: that lines should “follow the form” and in doing so indicate its depth. In this case those shading lines should have curved at the rump’s end so as to communicate its three-dimensionality. But Picasso followed the shade and not the form.

The familiar “subversion of academic conventions” apologia for Picasso’s idiosyncracies will not wash in the Vollard portrait’s case. Though working from a photograph, Picasso was doing this one straight, eager to convince himself and others that he could draw like an Old Master. Impressive as the results undeniably are, he couldn’t match Ingres’s draughtsmanship no matter how hard he tried. For economy of artistic means combined with flawless technique, his rival’s Guillon-Lethière leaves Picasso’s Vollard in the dust.

The article’s mood is very measured and polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be so reticent. Picasso has always left me cold, and assuming the analysis here is correct, could it be said that one reason for Picasso’s move away from traditional forms of art is not just because of a genuine desire to take art in what he saw in a new direction, but because, in terms of the skills of the Old Masters, he just could not quite hack it in every rigorous aspect, and therefore chose forms more in tune with his undoubted talents?

For those interested, this book on the skills of the Old Masters, by Charles Lock Eastlake, looks interesting. Drawing and painting is a skill of mine that I have, to my shame, let go a bit. It is something I intend to put right.

30 comments to The drawing skills of Picasso compared to the Old Masters

  • Dave Walker

    A very interesting article; thanks for posting. I wonder if it will form part of a wider re-appraisal.

    I’ve seen a few Picassos in my time – pen drawings as well as paintings – and they do worse than leave me cold; for all the Picassos I’ve seen, up until now I’d sooner look at a blank wall than a wall with a Picasso hung on it. That said, the Vollard drawing is the least aesthetically offensive Picasso I’ve seen, and I’d be interested to have a closer look at it.

    The coverage of anatomy in the main article reminds me that a number of the great classical artists studied musculoskeletal anatomy in detail; I wonder whether Picasso ever saw a dissection (or, these days, studied or copied from Grey’s)…

  • chuck

    …he just could he just could not quite hack it in every rigorous aspect

    If Wagner had been able to write a tune the history of music would have been different.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Picasso died about thirty years too late, but his middle period is pretty good. His portraits of his wives and mistresses from back then look surprisingly like them even though the subjects are distorted in the patented Picasso style. He couldn’t draw people, maybe, but he certainly could capture them.

  • Another Spanish painter who went in for ‘subversion of academic conventions’ could, however, draw and paint the human form in quite stunning detail.

  • Shirley Knott

    Indeed, the above referenced Spanish painter was a master draftsman.
    Further, his portrait of Picasso is a masterpiece that might just be the pictorial equivalent of the post on which we are commenting.

  • Jason

    Not sure I’d agree at all with that. I’d say Picasso pretty much mastered the technical skills fairly early in his career and turned in a different direction for want of a fresh approach.

    Not sure the same can be said of many of those who enjoy Charles Saatchi’s patronage however. Just saying.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Shirley, judging by your comment, the post on which I commented “crucified” Picasso. Not so. What happened is the the old fella made a big claim about his own superior drawing skills, saying he was better than one of the geniuses of the Renaissance. So it was only legitimate for that claim to be put to the test.

    FWIW, I am much keener on Dali’s work, although he was as nuts as a box of frogs.

  • Johnathan, I believe this is the painting Shirley is talking about.

    What it says about Picasso and about Dali’s opinion of him…?

  • gutsov

    The author of that article is quite correct.
    Picasso did not have the figure construction skills of even an old journeyman artist (let alone a genuine old master) who had been raised in the renaissance master/apprentice system.

    There had been a paradigm shift in drawing, from volumetric 3D conception to flat-visual 2D perception, accelerated by competition with photography. Instead of conceiving volumes in the round, drawings were made by flat shape, with shading between the outlines. Even Ingres was guilty of this approach.

    During our modern era, the real heirs to the renaissance anatomical-construction legacy are the comic-book figure draughtsmen & animators.

    BTW, the 19thC Eastlake book is available as free pdfs, under its original 2 vol title..

    Bear in mind, its not a drawing skills book, and it’s a bit heavy going if you’re just a casual reader who isn’t interested in the painting recipes of the renaissance masters (unlike me).
    There are better (also free) books on art technique available.

  • Shirley Knott

    If ‘crucified’ was too strong or otherwise inappropriate, I’ll cheerfully retract.
    Regardless of modality of expression, you gave Picasso at least as much respect as he deserves, and rather more than I would.

    And yes, the link that followed is indeed the portrait I had in mind.
    Do you think it respectful of Picasso? I don’t.
    Especially not in comparison with the many commissioned portraits Dali painted throughout his career, most notably while he was in the US.

    But indeed, mad as a box of frogs. Who can blame him, though, given his treatment by his parents? And the notariety/success that self-indulgence in madness got him.

  • Alisa

    Picasso’s not being a good draftsman, or a nice – or even good – person, has no bearing whatsoever on his being a unique and powerful artist. Nor does his art’s inability to appeal to everyone – such inability being universal.

  • Alisa

    FWIW, Dali is the one who leaves me cold. Art, like the rest of it, is in the eyes of the beholder.

    Speaking of Spanish artists, my favorite remains Goya.

  • Alisa

    In any case, and to be fair, Jonathan makes a good point – which is that memes, common “wisdoms” etc. do not necessarily have a connection to reality, and can be manufactured at will by interested parties.

  • Hmm

    Picasso exchanged his artistic talent for the ability to make money the P.T. Barnum way.

    The worlds of Academia and Art wholeheartedly welcomed this change of facet with wide open arms, misshapen tentacles and other splayed trapezoidal-like protuberances.

    The triumphal final chapter of Picasso’s career will shortly occur until Damien Hurst and Gunther von Hagens combine talents in the near future to create a multifaceted 3D cuboidal plastiform, created out of the exhumed remains of the original Picasso cadaver, and modified to correctly structure the great man in the form he brought to life for the art world. It will be suspended on a revolving platform and disgorge highly priced ink splash trading cards from its many rotating outlets. Picasso will live again! Bwahahaha!

  • I personally love the work of Picasso that is in the Picasso museum in Barcelona. (What is in Paris is possibly better, but gives me less pleasure). The repeated riffs on Velázquez that Picasso painted while developing the later style that is more famous are wonderful, and also at times very funny, and give you insight into the works of Velázquez that you did not have before. I think I would advise visiting this museum in the morning, immediately getting the very fast train to Madrid, and visiting the Prado in the afternoon, or possibly doing the reverse. It’s a shame they are not in the same museum.

    And I am with Alisa. I like Picasso’s work more than Dali’s. That they both had enormous egos and varying degrees of batshit craziness is not the point.

  • Dom

    Sorry, I think Picasso is the genius everyone claims. Some extraordinary Picasso’s:

    Jazz Players



    Of t his last painting:

    “But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more
    transient than we are ourselves, urgently, from their earliest days,
    wrung out for whom – to please whom,
    by a never-satisfied will? Yet it wrings them,
    bends them, twists them, and swings them,
    throws them, and catches them again”

    — RIlke, Duino Elegies

  • Laird

    The last two links in Dom’s post are broken; can someone please fix them? I’d like to take a look at them both before I pass judgment, but personally I think the first one (“Jazz Players”) is typical Picasso: crap. At least Dali is amusing, and competently executed.

  • Alisa

    Laird, you can google, and then click ‘images’ for each name to see the paintings.

  • Alisa

    My advice to Laird was smited…

    BTW, slightly OT, but very worth watching.

  • Alsadius

    I concur entirely with Laird. Picasso did weird, because he found normal boring. Sadly for Picasso, “normal” got that way for a reason. Looking at a Picasso feels like watching a scene in a movie where someone does too much peyote.

  • Jobrag

    Several unrelated Picasso thoughts;
    Picasso was approached by a man and asked why he didn’t make his paintings more realistic, Picasso asked the man if he had a photograph of his wife, on being shown the picture P commentated, “but she is so small and so flat”.
    During the 1920s 1930s there was a lot of talk about the possibility of a fourth dimension (if you haven’t read Flatland), much of Ps work was trying to imagine in two dimensions how a three dimensional world would look to a four dimensional figure.
    If you have only seen reproductions don’t make an opinion till you’ve seen the real thing, I didn’t rate Freud till I saw a real one in the Liverpool Tate, it dominated the entire gallery just as something that was so much better, in an indefinable way, then anything else in the room, I’ve found the same with Picasso if I’m in a strange gallery and see something that says looks odd but screams class it is often PP.

  • Dom

    Here are the last two links again.



    You didn’t like the Jazz Players? To me, it perfectly captures Jazz itself.


  • Paul Marks

    Yes J.P.

    I have long (rather cynically) suspected that the “modern art” is based on painters being unable to paint (being poor draftsmen) and sculpters being unable to sculpt.

    “I am painting [or sculpting] what is in my mind – not in the physical universe”.

    Well i can not see what is in your mind so I can not know whether you are doing a good job or a bad job….

    So I have to say you are doing a wonderful job – or I am an ignorant cynic…..

    Errr NO – I am not going to play ball.

    If an “artist” produces a blob and tells me it is how he sees a person “in his mind” – then I am just going to walk away.

    I am reminded of the man who sculpted the statutes of the three soldiers at the Vietnam memorial.

    He was denied admitance to any art school – and the art establishment showed nothing but compempt for him.

    The “great artists” who produced the wall of names at the Vietnam memorial approached him and asked (IN ALL SERIOUSNESS) if the models has been hurt by the plaster.

    He did not know what she was talking about – but….

    It turned out that the young lady had assumed he had got three soldiers and poured plaster on them to make a mold – and had then produced the statutes from these molds.

    The idea that a human being could pick up hand tools and approach a lump of rock – and cut out the image of three soldiers….

    This never occured to her mind – it was beyond her comprehension.

    The modern “artistic elite” (indeed the “intellecuatual elite” in general) are actually barbarians.

    I am barbarian myself – but I admire civilization.

    They are working to destroy what is left of it.

  • Dom

    Do you know what’s interesting? People who say Picasso is crap do not say the same about Matisse or Chagall. I wonder why that is.

    Laird and others, what do you think of this: Piano Lesson

    Or this: Daphne and Chloe

  • Alsadius

    Dom: Guernica looks like the sort of art I’d expect from a kindergartener with a knack for art but zero training in how to do it right – everything is nonsense, but it’s got that sort of earnest cluelessness you’d expect of a small child. Saltimbanques looks very 19th century – after photography destroyed the “draw reality” imperative, but before all the good habits had been abandoned out of boredom. It doesn’t offend me, but I’m not going to buy the poster of it either.

    And re those other artists, Matisse looks like someone started with a dozen random lines on a page and had 10 minutes to turn it into a picture. Chagall looks like he was making a rough sketch of the back cover of a self-help book. Neither is as aggressively bad as Picasso usually was, but neither actually impresses me in the slightest(though the Chagall might, if he went back and did the finished version).

    I don’t mind art that’s stylized in various ways – cartoons, for example, are a form I’m fine with despite being less realistic in some ways than some modern art. But you have to keep true to the essence of what you’re portraying – deviate too far, and you’re back in peyote-land. Far too much modern art is about going as far afield as you can, and then using big words to cover up any that go too far. I don’t mind an experimental mindset, but you have to be willing to acknowledge when your experiments have failed.

  • hennesli

    The mimetic function of art was rendered obsolete by photography long ago. And anyway the best representational art (think Turner, Constable ect) is not that which most faithfully reproduces the real, but that which is mediated by the subjective interpretation of the artist.

    The idea that the only good art is that which represents something else is absurd. A piece of music does not need to represent anything outside of itself to be considered beautiful; why should a painting or a sculpture?

  • Laird

    I’m with Alsadius. Well said, sir.

  • Alisa

    What hennesli said.

  • Alsadius

    I know I’m coming back to this late, but in response to hennesli said, I don’t claim that beauty comes solely from representational faithfulness. I just think that modern art is, by and large, ugly. If you want to see some unrealistic stuff I like, I’ve long been a fan of this guy: http://www.digitalblasphemy.com/dbhome.shtml

    Perhaps a third of it is stuff that could plausibly be duplicated with photography, but the other 2/3 is definitely art from the imagination. And yet, it’s almost all very nice.