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Early Years: Drawing and the Human Figure

Throughout their careers both Degas and Picasso focused primarily on the human figure, an obsession that had its roots in their early art-school education. Separated by almost half a century, both began their training by drawing, first from plaster casts, then from posed nude models, and by copying great figurative art from the past. Degas quickly rebelled against this system and embarked on a long study tour of Italy. Picasso, who revealed outstanding talent as a child and was directed by his art-teacher father, refused to complete his training at the Real Academia de San Fernando in Madrid and, aged sixteen, began consciously emulating more abstracted, vanguard styles. Nevertheless, for the rest of their lives drawing remained the corner-stone of both artists’ work, although Picasso, unlike Degas, would later work from memory and the imagination rather than hired models.

Paris: Picasso Discovers Degas

In their different circumstances, portraiture allowed both Degas and Picasso to progress beyond academic subject matter to contemporary urban imagery. In 1899 Picasso joined Barcelona’s Quatre Gats group and fell under the influence of Catalan artists, such as Ramon Casas, who had visited Paris and seen the work of the Impressionists, including Degas. Picasso’s strongly characterized portrait drawings made at the turn of the century resemble not only those by Casas, but also by Degas and his Parisian followers. Picasso first visited Paris in 1900, when the city’s glamour and artistic prestige were at their height. He stayed with Catalan friends in the artistic quarter, Montmartre, and reveled in the famous bars, cabarets, and street life. Degas was then in his sixties and lived nearby, and was still admired for his pioneering pictures of these subjects. By 1904, when Picasso settled in Paris, he had already produced many caricatural cabaret scenes and also responded directly to some of Degas’s most celebrated and controversial pictures, notably In a Café (L’Absinthe).

Women and their Private World

Although a lifelong bachelor reputed in his own day to be a misogynist, Degas was so fascinated by women that they dominated his work in all media. Alongside numerous portraits that are notable for their sympathy, penetration and honesty, he produced hundreds of images of women washing themselves and doing their hair, rejecting mythological subject matter in favor of contemporaneity. For Picasso too, women were always the prime subject, and as with Degas portraits of women in his circle coexist with generic images of nudes. In 1906, when toilette scenes briefly dominated his work, Picasso adopted a willfully “primitive” form of classicism, drawing inspiration from Degas’s daringly simplified late style. The posthumous sales of the contents of Degas’s studio in 1918–1919 brought a flood of unknown drawings and paintings onto the market. Picasso’s interest in Degas was reignited, and for the rest of his life he periodically produced suites of toilette scenes, never imitating Degas closely but acknowledging his precedent by echoing his most characteristic poses and devices.

The Ballet: Homage and Humor

Degas was known to Picasso’s generation as “The Painter of Dancers.” Picasso showed little interest in ballet as a young man, but later a growing fascination with Degas’s art gradually extended to his dance imagery. During Picasso’s early years in Paris, he made several startling responses to Degas’s celebrated Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, which he probably knew through hearsay and reproductions of its preparatory studies. He became more familiar with Degas’s ballet pictures when large numbers were displayed in Paris after the artist’s death in 1917. By this date Picasso was working on stage and costume designs for the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, and had met his future wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova. Just as Degas had depicted dancers on the stage and in the classroom, Picasso made studies of Olga and the Diaghilev company. Roughly a decade later, Picasso also created a series of small plaster figures that recall bronzes of dancers by Degas he had seen in a recent exhibition.

Picasso’s Bather-Dancers

Degas made sculptures in wax, clay, and other materials throughout much of his career but exhibited only one in public: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. After his death in 1917, seventy-four surviving sculptures — many of them representing nude ballerinas — were cast in bronze. They were then exhibited widely, including an important display in Paris in 1931. Picasso is known to have seen this exhibition and may have been inspired to make some plaster sculptures of dancer-like figures on a similar scale. Witty and imaginative, Picasso’s dancer-bathers seem to acknowledge his predecessor without imitating him.

Brothel Scenes: the Artist as Voyeur

The monotypes depicting life in Parisian brothels that Degas created in the late 1870s had a unique appeal for Picasso, whose own earliest images of prostitution were produced shortly before his first visit to Paris in 1900. It may have been Ambroise Vollard — the gallery dealer who hosted Picasso’s first Parisian exhibition in 1901 — who introduced the young Spaniard to this little-known aspect of the Frenchman’s work. Between 1958 and 1960 Picasso realized a long-standing ambition when he acquired nine of Degas’s brothel monotypes, and it was in his late work that his admiration found its most explicit expression. Echoes of Degas’s imagery and technique abound in numerous prints produced in 1968, and in March 1971 Picasso began a series of thirty-nine etchings in which Degas appears as a client visiting a brothel. Convinced that Degas resembled his own father, and regarding him as an alter ego, Picasso continued to portray Degas in his drawings until a few months before his death, at age ninety-one, in April 1973.