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Picasso and Spanish Golden Age Painting

While attending the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Barcelona in 1897 and 1898 as well as throughout his long career, Picasso studied Spain’s Golden Age painters, including Velázquez, Zurbarán, and Murillo, among others.

 The Golden Age, or Siglo d’oro, roughly coincided with the rise and fall of the Spanish Habsburg family and spanned more than a hundred years, from the end of the 15th century into the latter half of the 17th century. The phrase speaks to the florescence of the arts and literature during a period when the Habsburg family and their coterie possessed great political power—largely due to their control of the New World. The exploitation of natural resources, such as silver and gold, made Spain’s rulers the most powerful of their time and allowed them to lavish extreme wealth on artists and writers, especially those that helped promote the Catholic religion—one of the driving forces behind this Spanish family.

In 1946, Picasso placed his own paintings alongside works by painters of this illustrious Golden Age on the walls of the Louvre Museum, Paris. After studying his installation, Picasso is reported to have proclaimed: “See, they are the same thing. The very same thing.” How do we interpret Picasso’s statement? Was Picasso responding on a formal level to similarities of line, color, and shape? Or, was he making a more profound observation about shared nationalist allegiances or perspectives on the human condition? 

Picasso once remarked: “I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work.” Some scholars understand this statement and Picasso’s artistic dialogue with earlier artists, including those in Spain, as an expression of anxiety—that is, anxiety about his place in the history of art.