Vénus et l'Amour, d'après Cranach
Vénus et l'Amour, d'après Cranach (Bloch 1835)

1949 (around May 30, Paris and around 1951)

Aquatint, scraper, burin and drypoint printed on Rives 
One of three trial proofs printed before steelfacing, outside the edition of 50 of the sixth (final) state
Printed by Lacourière
Image: 31 3/8 x 16 7/8 inches
Sheet: 35 1/2 x 25 inches
Framed: 44 3/4 x 29 3/4 inches
(Bloch 1835) (Baer 876.VI.A.a)

The sixth and final state in a suite of etchings begun at the end of May 1949, the image is at its most elegant and sophisticated. Picasso has reversed the positions of the two figures portrayed in Cranach’s original (c.1530, Gemäldegalerie Berlin) that he copied from a postcard sent to him by his friend, the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. In the first state, the figures are crudely delineated. Four rings that elongate the neck of Venus, her mask-like face and her long zig-zagging curls confer a primitivist appearance. Through the following five states, executed in 1951, Picasso developed the image, sharpening and refining it. By the sixth state, Venus and Cupid are exquisitely drawn; their delicate features, the detail of individual beads on the necklace and gently waving locks of hair, and the fine feathery lines modeling the contours of the bodies evoke the sensitivity of Renaissance painting and recall the realism of Picasso’s early compositions. Picasso etched the first plate during a sojourn in Paris for the birth of his daughter Paloma (on 19 April 1949), his second child with his attractive young mistress Françoise Gilot. The artist’s interest at this time in the theme of Venus and Cupid—symbolizing the great universal theme of romantic love—suggests that it was a happy period in his life. However, Baer notes that Geneviève Laporte, who began an affair with the artist in 1951, claims that it is her portrait. Although the first versions of Picasso’s variations predate this, it is possible that his later developments of the image were motivated by his affair. In these, Venus appears happy and serene, looked up to adoringly by Cupid who points his arrow playfully at her upper thigh. From his earliest training as an artist, Picasso had learned from the examples of the old masters, and even copied their works before going on to subject them to examination and analysis, reinterpreting such works as Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814) in a Cubist study (1907). References and allusions to his artistic predecessors follow a current throughout his work, but an incident that took place in 1947 may well have had a catalytic effect. When the director of the Louvre offered to have some of Picasso’s paintings taken into the main galleries and placed alongside whichever works he chose, he was confronted with the terrifying question of how his paintings would hold up beside the great Spanish and French masters he thought of as his ancestors. But the test worked—it confirmed that Picasso was reinvigorating the great tradition of painting on a level equal with his predecessors. In March of that year, he turned to a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), David and Bathsheba 1526, for his first formal set of variations, converting the Biblical story of the ageing King David and the beautiful young Bathsheba into an allegory of his own relationship with the youthful Françoise. Two years later, Picasso began his treatment of Venus et l’amour with a lithograph in three variations and two states (Bloch 183-4; Mourlot 182-4). Showing the couple in Cranach’s orientation, not reversed as in the etching suite that followed, they explore representational styles that begin with Cubism and end with cartoon.

 

Cranach the Elder was second only to Rembrandt of the Northern masters who inspired Picasso. The rich territory that he was to mine intensively in his ‘old master period’ follows Cranach with El Greco and Courbet in 1950, and continues with Cranach the Younger and Van Gogh as well as Goya, Poussin, David and Degas. In 1954 Picasso created fifteen paintings and numerous drawings related to Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in the space of two months; in 1957, forty-five variations in oil were inspired by Velàzquez’s Las Meninas; and Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe served as the basis for twenty-seven canvases, more than a hundred drawings and several prints and sculptures produced between 1959 and 1962. In all of these works Picasso is taking on the artists who for him were still alive, and who he said he felt were ‘all standing behind me watching me at work’.i At once reverential and competitive, Picasso’s relationships with his ‘collaborators’ became a means of appropriating and fusing the disparate elements of their great themes, in order to rewrite them in his own visual language. These homages affirm Picasso’s roots in the classical tradition in which imitation and originality are recognized as reciprocal parts of each other, and situate him firmly within the lineage of great artists.

 

i Quoted in Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Challenging the Past, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2009, p.13.