W.T.G.A.: Picasso Vs Rembrandt
One died penniless, the other a worldwide celebrity who came to represent what people regarded as the quintessential definition of what an artist is. Both exhibited extraordinary talent at an early age. Their works hang in all the important cultural institutions across the planet. A masterpiece by either one of them would be considered the centerpiece of any art gallery’s collection; not that any museum could afford to buy one in this day and age. Their influence on young artists continues to this day and their names are synonymous with genius. They are two of the greatest that have ever been, but who is the greater?
The legend that is Picasso started at an early age. As the hyperbolic story goes: a fifteen year old Picasso applies to an academy of art in Barcelona. The candidates are given three months to complete the entrance portfolio. Picasso completes his in a mere three days and is immediately admitted. His talent was undeniable and this is evident in some of his earliest works executed when he was only in his teens. In his own words “At an early age I could draw like Rapheal.” The only thing that could be bigger than his talent might have been his ego.
Rembrandt apprenticed under a few working artists in his late teens and early twenties but by the time he hit twenty-two he was accepting pupils of his own. He developed a mature style early on in his career that he constantly improved upon but remained consistent throughout his lifetime. He painted roughly 90 self-portraits over his 63 years that document his highs and his lows but every one go beyond the simple representation and give a glimpse into (as cheesy as it sounds) the soul.
As prolific as Picasso was at an early age; Rembrandt’s early works show a deeper understanding of materials and the overall human condition. In his early twenties Picasso moved to Paris and was influenced by the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. He quickly tried to exert his own style and approach to painting and by the time he was 26 had already burned through his Blue and Rose periods.These periods offer glimpses of his genius but feel more like explorations than finished masterpieces. Rembrandt at this same stage had already truly mastered his medium.
Rembrandt’s reputation and his wife’s connections helped him become one of the most sought after artists in all of Amsterdam. The trend of the day was to do multiple portraits in large scale group scenes. Rembrandt could both flatter his sitters along with revealing some narrative that transcends straight forward portraiture. His paintings are sumptuous but are also very much at the mercy of his patrons.
Being a starving artist in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century also put Picasso at the mercy of his patrons. Luckily for him his early supporters wanted him to explore to his heart’s content. Picasso at his very core is a constant searcher. The carnage he left in his path is epic. With the help of Georges Braques and under the influence of Cézanne; Picasso negated centuries of painting practice and invented Cubism and collage. He completely freed painting from the rules of representation and stepped firmly into modernity.
That is not to say Rembrandt was devoid of innovation. If you take a close examination of his paintings you will witness exquisite passages of painting that almost veer on the abstract. The background of The Jewish Bride is simply Impressionistic – two centuries before Monet. Rembrandt handles light and drama with equal expertise and no painting depicts this better than his The Night Watch. Heralded as a national treasure, it has become an art pilgrimage for the painting faithful.
Picasso has his fair share of masterpieces: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, The Three Musicians, Guernica and so on but I would argue that none of them draw you in like The Night Watch. I’ve personally stood in front of both Guernica and The Night Watch and been humbled by their scale, dazzled by their technique and felt the presence of their genius but it is Rembrandt who takes you out of yourself and transports you somewhere else.
Over the course of his life, Picasso’s output was prolific to say the least. He wasn’t satisfied unless he was painting. The constant exploration could sometimes produce multiple canvases in a single day. With all that output, not all of them are going to be masterpieces, but Picasso had way more successes than failures. He redefined his style numerous times, always demonstrating skill and innovation. Picasso‘s strength lies more in process than product. We get to witness the act of creation and the multiple decisions and variations one painting problem can pose.
Rembrandt inspired a school of imitators. Every one of them trying to emulate the master’s control and handling of paint. All of them came up short. No one can as effortlessly lay down colour and light with such an economy of stroke and precision as him. Rembrandt’s virtuosity is both inspiring and humbling and definitely created a league all his own. Picasso on the other hand, constantly opened doors for other artists to step through. His influence is immeasurable.
I would argue that no one before or since has handled paint like Rembrandt Van Rijn. Anyone who has ever picked up a brush since him has felt his presence. He is hands down a far better painter than Pablo Picasso, but does that make him the better artist? Rembrandt‘s contribution to art is immense but so is Picasso‘s. Rembrandt helped to redefine what art could be and Picasso helped redefine what art is.They are both equally matched but Picasso had one advantage Rembrandt did not: a competitive equal. I’m sorry but Frans Hals is no Matisse. Without Matisse we would have had a very different Picasso and I would dare say a less compelling one. Constantly being challenged pays off in the end.
Coming soon…. Goya vs Rothko