El Greco and Velazquez: Pablo Picasso's Early Inspiration

Guernica by Picasso
Guernica by Picasso | © Mark Barry / Flickr
Elizabeth Segura

Renowned for his role in revolutionizing the art world during the 20th century, Spanish national treasure Pablo Picasso experimented with a range of techniques and styles throughout his lifetime and eventually co-founded the Cubist movement. We look back at Picasso’s formative years to discover his early influences and how he drew inspiration from great European Old Masters like El Greco and Velázquez.

Painting Was In His Blood

Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain on the 25th of October in 1881. As the tradition at the time was for newborns to be named after saints whose protection they would thereby receive, he received the full name Pablo, Diego, José Francisco de Paula, Juan Nepomuceno, María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso – fortunately, he went with ‘Pablo Picasso’ for short.

The first person to artistically influence Pablo Picasso was his father, José Ruiz Blasco, who had privately studied with Spanish painter José Garcia Chicano as a child. When Pablo got older, he worked as a drawing teacher’s assistant at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Málaga — specifically, in the discipline of lineal drawing and decoration. He was also appointed the curator of the Municipal Museum of Málaga.

sculpture of Pablo Picasso by Francisco López Hernández/

As an artist, Picasso’s father usually painted animals (especially birds) and was a skilled artist, although he never achieved fame himself. He was, however, Picasso’s first teacher, and the person who introduced him to the world of art at a young age. He inspired Picasso to nurture his artistic curiosity and pursue his creative urges. In 1895-96, at the age of 14, Picasso made his first trip to Madrid, where he visited the Museo del Prado. It was there that he first set eyes on the masterpieces of the European Old Masters, including El Greco and Velázquez. A few years later, in a notebook entry from 1898, Picasso would affirm the lasting effect the great masters had had on him, stating, “Greco, Velázquez, they inspire me!”

Doménikos Theotokópoulos El Greco

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, best known as El Greco (meaning “The Greek”), was called so because he was born in Crete. However, when he was born, Crete was part of the Republic of Venice — so in his twenties, El Greco traveled to Venice and studied with the great painter Titian, who was already well-known at that time. With Titian, El Greco become an expert in the skills of Renaissance painting; The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind is the piece that best represents his work during that period.

El Greco moved to Rome in 1570 and stayed there until 1576, when he began working in the palace of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In 1572, El Greco joined the painters’ academy and established a studio, but he was widely unsuccessful — most likely due to his criticism of Michelangelo’s artistic abilities, which was something that the Roman art establishment did not approve of. Finally, in 1576, El Greco left Rome and settled in Toledo, Spain, where he remained until his death.

Cardinale Fernando Niño de Guevara, by El Greco/

Upon his arrival, El Greco sought sponsorship from King Felipe II in Madrid, but was unsuccessful. He then went to Toledo and met Diego de Castilla, the dean of Toledo’s Cathedral, who commissioned El Greco to paint a group of works for the altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Some of the most notable works dating from that era are The Trinity and The Assumption of the Virgin. Castilla also commissioned El Greco to paint The Disrobing of Christ, one of El Greco’s most famous masterpieces. In his final works, El Greco painted exaggerated and often distorted visions of the human body, seen in works like The Adoration of the Shepherds (1599) and Concert of Angels (1610).

In his youth, Picasso did some drawings inspired in by El Greco. He was especially inspired by works like El entierro del Conde Orgaz (a picture replicated by Picasso in El entierro de Casagemas, 1901), Caballero Anciano (an inspiration for Picasso’s picture Retrato de un desconocido and The Opening of the Fifth Seal — this one in particular likely influenced Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, often considered the first Cubist painting).

Diego Velázquez, Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares, c. 1636

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

Rodríguez, who was born in Sevilla, Spain in 1599 and died in 1660 in Madrid, became a painting apprentice of Francisco Pacheco, a local painter, at the age of 11. This internship lasted six years — initially, Velázquez’s paintings depicted traditional religious themes, but when he began to study Caravaggio‘s body of work, he was influenced by the naturalistic style of the Italian painter.

In 1622, Velázquez moved to Madrid, and thanks to his father-in-law (Velázquez married Francisco Pacheco’s daughter), he had the chance to paint a portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares. The count-duke recommended Velázquez’s services to King Philip IV, who, after seeing a portrait made by the painter, decided that no one else could possibly paint him. The king even appointed Velázquez to be one of his court painters.

During his time as a painter of the court, Velázquez had the opportunity to learn from great artists such as Peter Paul Reubens. One of Velázquez’s notable works from that period was The Triumph of Bacchus. In 1629, Velázquez traveled to Italy and spent 18 months there; when he returned to Madrid, he painted a series of portraits of the royal family on horseback. From 1649 to 1651, Velázquez spent some more time in Italy and painted a portrait of Pope Innocent X, which is considered one of his finest portraits. In 1956, Velázquez painted his most famous masterpiece, Las Meninas.

In his visits to El Prado, Picasso viewed and sketched many Velázquez paintings, including El Bufón de Calabacillas, El Niño de Vallecas, the portrait of Felipe IV, and Las Meninas. During the summer of 1957, Picasso worked on a series of 58 canvases, 44 of them inspired directly by Las Meninas.

Picasso was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but his greatness did not come from himself only. As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” It seems that Picasso also had his own giants — El Greco and Velázquez.

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