Could Picasso Draw Better than Raphael?

Comparing Pablo Picasso’s drawings to those of the Old Masters reveals his failure to master the basics of draughtsmanship

Art Critique
Ambroise Vollard by Picasso

“Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the world’s greatest draughtsmen,” Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick Collection in New York, declares at the outset of her introductory essay in the catalogue of a recent exhibition of Picasso drawings, subtitled Reinventing Tradition, at the Frick and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The only other artist she accords “one of the world’s greatest draughtsmen” status in her essay is Michelangelo. Galassi avers that the “system of training” Picasso underwent “had remained relatively unchanged since the Renaissance”.

Ironically, it is precisely because of that training that Picasso has come to be regarded as a sort of Old Master manqué. Hence a Hegelian narrative: the youthful prodigy mastered “the conventions of classical representation”. Thesis. Abandoning the academy at the age of 16, he rebelled against those conventions. Antithesis. But in doing so he would go on to “reinvent” them. Synthesis.

The big problem here is that many art historians assume that the instruction received by Picasso and Ingres, who was born almost exactly a century before him, was essentially the same. After all, both followed the hallowed pedagogical sequence: copying prints (known as copying “from the flat”), then moving on to drawing plaster casts of antique sculpture, then proceeding to drawing the figure from life. But the apparent similarity masks a chasm, and that chasm has a lot to tell us not only about Modernism’s advent and Picasso’s own artistic trajectory, but also about serious lapses in contemporary scholarship.

Precisely because Galassi’s assessment of Picasso’s status as a draughtsman comparable to Michelangelo assumes his “mastery of the conventions of classical representation”,  her Hegelian thesis is untenable. The fault lay not in Picasso, but in his dumbed-down, late-academic training. A case in point is Picasso’s portrait of Ambroise Vollard, which was included in the Frick exhibition.

In his thirties and forties, Picasso produced a number of pencil portraits that took their stylistic cues — specifically, their emphasis on sinuous line — from Ingres. Picasso was notoriously smitten with Ingres’s draughtsmanship. Even as a 22-year-old enfant terrible, he had made a pilgrimage to his illustrious predecessor’s hometown of Montauban to visit the Musée Ingres. The year was 1904.

A decade later, while still exploring the Cubist idiom he and Georges Braque had invented, Picasso produced his most ambitious portrait in the Ingres manner. The subject was Vollard, one of his main dealers. “It gave me a lot of trouble,” Picasso confessed to a Swedish journalist after completing the portrait. Now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the portrait offers a three-quarter view of the stout, bearded Vollard. He is seated, with legs crossed, in a chair in Picasso’s Parisian studio, one hand resting on the other at his hip.

At first glance, one might think Picasso had outdone his rival. Not content to rely mainly on the linear treatment of the figure while more fully modelling the head in light and shade as well as line — Ingres’s standard approach in pencil portraits such as his superb likeness of Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1815), director of the French Academy in Rome — Picasso gave Vollard an intensely detailed treatment from head to foot, along with a rudimentary architectural setting. As a tonal study the Vollard portrait reflects the impressive grasp of graphic technique Picasso had acquired through his academic training. But as a study of the human form it would have Ingres raising his eyebrow.

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.

Whereas Ingres was schooled in the old academic tradition, a tradition whose formal content was grounded in the geometric rigour of classical sculpture, Picasso’s latter-day schooling was very different. This isn’t just a matter of the increasingly pervasive naturalism that set in after the French Revolution. It is more specifically a matter of the influence of photography depriving the academic tradition of that formal rigour after it burst on to the scene around 1840. The old tradition’s adulterated substitute retained conventions like narrative content and, as Picasso’s Vollard portrait eloquently testifies, refined tonal technique in draughtsmanship. But the flesh and blood was gone.

This is abundantly evident in a drawing primer Picasso used as a student, the Cours de Dessin the French painter Charles Bargue produced in collaboration with his better-known colleague Jean-Léon Gérôme. Published as a set of 197 loose-leaf lithographs between 1868 and 1871, the Cours reappeared in book format in 2003. 

The plates in the three-part Cours include sculpture (anatomical parts and whole-figure classical masterpieces), contemporary renditions of Old Master drawings, and Bargue’s own studies of male nudes from life. Apart from the life studies the Cours was mainly intended for commercial artists, and this might serve as justification for Bargue’s simplistic, pseudo-classical pedagogy. But photography was a crucial factor in that pedagogy. It profoundly affected the way the world was seen by artists, including artists who considered themselves heirs to the academic tradition dating back to Louis XIV and Colbert.

By the time he was in his early teens, Picasso was copying Bargue plates including the Theseus from the Parthenon (one of the pedimental figures in the British Museum), the Belvedere Torso, and an unidentified male “Torse Antique” showing the torso’s rear. In doing so Picasso internalised Bargue’s treatment of the figure as the byproduct of reflected light. He won the approbation of his teachers, his artist father included, by producing tonal studies involving meticulous gradations from highlight to midtone to shadow in which the highly specific and complex shapes comprising the original sculptures — the Theseus and Belvedere Torso, at least — receive generic, simplistic treatment.

Bargue’s Torse Antique, which Picasso copied very faithfully, is a particularly flagrant example of this degradation of classical form. The clearly outlined, extensively shadowed figure is reduced to a sort of diagrammatic, chiaroscuro collage — remarkably abstract and inorganic. Within a decade of making this copy, Picasso treated the dejected figures in a celebrated Blue Period work, Two Women Seated at a Bar, in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the Torse Antique plate. Here too the figures, seen from the rear, are clearly outlined while the bony structures of their backs are even more diagrammatically rendered, with a portion of the shoulder blades and the adjoining spinal channels sunk in Bargue-like shadow.

One of the first academic copies Picasso made from the flat is the left eye of a classical figure from two different angles. He was about 11 when he made it. And here too the plate he was copying was probably of low quality, though it was not from Bargue’s Cours. Picasso’s study is distinguished by very simple, generic outlines for nose, brow and especially the eyelids — combined, once again, with a very limited indication of form by means of gradations of light and shade. That early study, like Picasso’s copy of the Torse Antique, was a portent of things to come. We encounter its echo in Picasso’s stylised oil portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) — with its very generic, clearly delineated facial features — and in his later, more overtly neo-archaic and “sculptural” pastel drawing of a woman’s head (1921; owned by the Fondation Beyeler in Basel). In his schematic treatment of the eyes in both pictures, Picasso simply refined the defects in the technique he had learned as an 11-year-old.

Photography, then, did not just infect Picasso’s ersatz classical training; its anti-classical ramifications, particularly evident in the Torse Antique plate, were born out in his Modernist work. It also contributed to Picasso’s failure to follow the form rather than the shade in the Vollard portrait. A photograph, after all, is produced by reflected light, and in recording visual phenomena through gradations of light, shade and shadow it typically fails to capture nature’s geometric depth and complexity, not least where human anatomy is concerned. As the Greeks were the first to realise, it is incumbent on art to reveal that complexity by freeing itself from the pictorial constraints of human vision, which photography simply mimics, in order to create a more complete, more emphatically spatial reality.

As the byproduct of reflected light, rather than an entity whose geometric structure logically antecedes and transcends the realm of optical phenomena, the human figure loses its classical content, not only in the Bargue primer but in the entire programme of late-academic instruction in which Picasso so conspicuously excelled. The figure becomes a classical simulacrum. Michelangelo’s famous red-chalk studies for the Libyan Sibyl in the Metropolitan Museum provide a good idea of what I mean by classical content. Michelangelo was concerned with geometry above all — with the relationships between the complex shapes that define the structure of the figure. He too relied on outline, light and shade. But he used them to model those shapes with utmost precision so as to reinforce the figure’s structural and spatial character.

Nowhere in Michelangelo’s studies does the use of shadow spare the artist the trouble of precisely articulating the anatomical areas it covers. But this short-cut, which is very much a part of the Bargue method, crops up in Picasso’s work — on the bony backs of the Two Women Seated at a Bar, for instance. An early example is his academic study of a plaster cast of the reclining Ilissus from the Parthenon (also in the British Museum) done when he was a 13 or 14-year-old student in Barcelona. Here the figure’s left flank is largely blanketed by shadow.

In the original statue, the figure’s left shoulder is a magnificent form of great complexity. This form Picasso reduced to a dumb, almost spherical shape, in line with the Bargue method. The thorax of the Ilissus rotates on the pelvis, and Picasso incorrectly rendered its lower right rib, creating a rather weird overhang that casts a deep shadow line on the belly. He thus disrupted the unity of the figure while simplistically and inaccurately treating the figure’s abdominal and lower right flank (or external oblique) muscles as a single mass. Picasso heavily outlined the figure’s left pectoral to set it apart from the shadowed area of the adjoining flank. But that outline distorts the pectoral’s form. Even allowing for the possibly inferior quality of the cast Picasso was working from, none of this points to “mastery of the conventions of classical representation”.

The life drawings Picasso produced in the course of his training amply confirm that his studies of classical works failed to give him that grasp of anatomical structure which is central to the classical tradition. A full-length life drawing of a nude black man, shown in three-quarter view with arms crossed, is symptomatic. Among other faults, anatomical features lack structural definition; geometric relationships, as between the figure’s rather too diminutive buttock and the head, are not clarified as they should be. Like the Ilissus drawing, with which it was loaned by the Museu Picasso in Barcelona for the Reinventing Tradition exhibition, this life study is most impressive as an exercise in graphic rather than sculptural technique.

There was thus a much stronger naturalistic strain in Picasso’s formal training than is commonly realised. That training, in contrast to the old academic system, was pictorially rather than sculpturally oriented. It was more preoccupied with light and the surface effects it produces than with the underlying structure of the figure. Had that not been the case, Picasso would not have failed to communicate the structure of Vollard’s face and hands in his laboriously detailed portrait. So the contrast between the “classical” studies Picasso produced as a student and the remarkable portraits he produced on his own in a naturalistic, verista manner is a genre issue, nothing more.

Simplistic shapes (think of the dumbed-down shoulder in the Ilissus study), generic or schematic outlines and tonal gradation remained central to Picasso’s draughtsmanship after he forsook the academy. These core components of Bargue’s E-Z Method he routinely combined with graphic pyrotechnics of one kind or another. It is not an exaggeration to say that Picasso made a Modernist virtue of the defects in his academic training.

A Picasso self-portrait in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, expressionistically rendered in black chalk and watercolour when he was 20, again calls the Cours to mind. The face, bordered by a thick mane of hair above and a striped cravat below, is blocked out in rigid lines, like a preliminary schematic outline in one of Bargue’s how-to plates. The simple design consigned much of one side of his face to shadow — Step 2 in the Bargue method — though here the shadow is very crudely indicated. The facial features were rather hazily sketched in, their tonal qualities clearly indicating photography’s influence. And that’s Step 3. He had recently taken a similar approach in a number of the portraits he had produced for his first exhibition at the Els Quatre Gats café in Barcelona.

And while archaic and primitive sculpture came to hold a powerful romantic appeal for Picasso, it also had the signal advantage of accommodating his limitations as a draughtsman. Such sculpture, after all, typically combines geometrically rudimentary forms with formulaic outlines for anatomical features like mouths and eyes. In other words, it was precisely Picasso’s post-classical academic training that set the stage for his chronic production of emphatically stylised, neo-primitive or neo-archaic figures. His Boy Leading a Horse, from 1905-06, is frontally posed, the legs rigid like those of an archaic Greek kouros. The boy’s face is painted in a bright hue that evokes marble while its features are delineated in a very generic, quasi-classical manner. The horse is rendered more naturalistically, but both figures are emphatically outlined. The amorphous landscape in which they are situated is flattened in perspective. Just as the quadrifrontal kouros was conceived as a composite of distinct pictorial profiles rather than an essentially spatial entity, so the Boy Leading a Horse — in stark contrast to Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl studies — is essentially pictorial as opposed to spatial in conception. In Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) the pictorial space is even more constricted. The anatomical collage of shadow, mid-tones, and highlights in the Torse Antique is replaced by a radically fragmented, polychromatic collage of simple shapes, starting with those comprising the picture’s five female nudes, two of whose heads take after primitive African masks.

Picasso’s training also appears to have set the stage for his cubist work. His proto-cubist Woman with Pears (1909) is much more spatial than the Demoiselles. The bust-length figure, situated in front of a still life with her head tilted to one side, is a welter of faceted planes, with her neck’s extended sternomastoid a curved monolith and the compressed sternomastoid a low pyramid perched on its side. Here Picasso is exploring a new approach to the rationalisation of the human figure that, as with the Demoiselles, extends the disintegrative implications of the Torse Antique. His earth-toned palette still legibly accommodates highlights, midtones and shadows. But he soon went on to fully disaggregate the rudimentary shapes comprising his figures to produce much more abstract compositions in which lights, midtones and darks appear non-referential while the pictorial space is illegible.

The late-academic optical record, the basis of Picasso’s training, thus contained the seeds of its own implosion. After all, the reality the “traditional” artist was seeking to recreate was no longer latent in the model. Reality lay rather in perception. Reality was the product of reflected light. Just how radical this development was easily escapes us when we behold historical scenes painted by Bargue’s collaborator Gérôme, whose colleagues and students produced many of the drawings employed in the Cours de Dessin. Yet the photographic aura saturating Gérôme’s pictures is unmistakable. The disconnect with truly classical art causes his work to be dismissed as kitsch, a perfectly defensible conclusion but also beside the point. Impressionism, for its part, simply took the recording of optical phenomena to a new extreme, dissolving form in reflected light. Perception’s medium became the message.

Historically, these were the first major steps towards Modernism’s sundry solipsisms, for the artist’s notion of what he was about, deprived of objective grounding in classical principles of form, inevitably became increasingly subjective. Picasso was the protean exemplar of the extreme stylistic instability that was the inevitable result. And in a cultural climate that cherished novelty and originality above all, he achieved mythic stature. At least where his draughtsmanship was concerned, he was inclined to feel he deserved it.

“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 Picasso’s legacy is considerably more complicated than that flawed Hegelian formulation would have us believe. And his achievement is more likely to be gauged in the light of personal sensibility rather than objective achievement. For many educated people, Picasso and his decidedly eclectic, often humorous art are emblematic of an idea of modernity and its ambiguous relationship to the past — and that is all the justification he needs.

Fair enough. But that hardly entitles him to a pedestal in the Old Masters’ pantheon.