In 1899, at the age of 18, Picasso arrived in Barcelona. His father, Don José, was of a mind that he should hone his art at the academically respectable Escola de la Llotja. Picasso had other ideas, however, as he was lured by the freer schooling offered by the Cercle Artístic, which was distinguished by liberty from restrictive conventions. What now blossomed was a young person’s inquisitiveness and creativity, paired with the stifled fin-de-siècle attitudes that were also to be found in Barcelona. Picasso quickly made the leap from his previous academic schooling to freer observation, adding pace and bravado to his artistic creation.
He and his companions cultivated dandyism, although without indulging in anything too extravagant or expensive. There was nevertheless plenty of room for generous cravats and high collars, for wild excesses in the red light district, and for visits to sickrooms in the unwavering presence of death. In his nascent sketches, the young Picasso introduces us to a world closely related to the existentially charged art associated with names such as Edvard Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec – and, to an equal extent, to the observant contemporary reporting disseminated widely through the drawings of Théophile Steinlen.
For as long as Picasso remained in Barcelona around the turn of the century, the café Els Quatre Gats was the setting for his intellectual and spiritual development. The café was a kind of Catalan parallel to the Bohemian culture of Parisian life. It was here that he heard talk of the young people’s idols: of Verlaine, Nietzsche, Wilde, Wagner and Kropotkin. However, the modern art he encountered was simply a provincial variation on symbolism and art nouveau. What he created more-or-less mirrored the direction and ambitions of his Catalan colleagues. It is interesting to note that he would later come to distance himself from the experimentation of his late teens, even though he retained close ties to some of the friends from his youth for the rest of his life.
There is no shortage of literature about Picasso, and so there are naturally detailed descriptions of the development of his teenage years. Much is considered known, but this portrait that is now been auctioned off adds yet another aspect to the documentation of the young Picasso’s sojourn in Barcelona in 1899. It is true that the painting has been listed by Christian Zervos in the supplement to his monumental catalogue (Vol. 21), where it appears under number 84, but little information is presented about the identity of the model.
It can now be proven that the person depicted is Dionís Renart i Garcia (1878 – 1946), a sculptor with a great interest in astronomy; in fact, one of his great interests was lunar cartography. In his memoirs, his brother Joaquim Renart recalled seeing the portrait of his brother in the studio of Santiago and Josep Cardona, at No. 2, calle de Escudillers Blancs in Barcelona 1). It was here that Picasso painted the intimate portrait of the sculptor Josep in a white shirt, sitting at his work table illuminated by the light of an oil lamp – a portrait emphatically completed in competition with Ramon Casas. The same building housed a small corset factory, El Perfill, which was owned by the brothers’ mother. Picasso seems to have been highly entertained by observing how skilled hands and machines worked in tandem to punch out the corset loops. According to his friend Jaime Sabartès, Picasso noted down his sensory impressions through tireless sketching.
John Richardson has emphasised that Picasso’s stay with the Cardona brothers was a splendid choice 2). He was accorded a warm reception here, and found stimulation in the local social life. However, the presence of Dionís Renart has not been commented, probably because he did not play an active role in Barcelona’s intellectual circles. Succinct mentions indicate that he was a retiring figure: “he kept himself socially isolated”.
It is true that it is difficult to apply a psychological assessment to a portrait of this kind on the basis of only a slim collection of personal traits (if such should be necessary at all). Nevertheless, the fact remains that a picture was painted by one young man showing another young man. Even without supplementary information, it still retains credibility as an observed memory from a sitting without greater pretensions than Picasso revealing that he effortlessly handles the medium of oil painting with some of the same bravura that appears in the late nineteenth-century virtuoso portrait art that can trace its roots to Velázquez’s oeuvre. Closer influences on the young Picasso included artists such as Joaquín Sorolla and, in particular, Ramon Casas. He had not yet fully worked his way up to Velázquez – that is a later and more overwhelming story. What we do have is an impromptu work in compact navy blue, with the portrait of a clean-shaven young man. He is wearing a choker with a loosely tied, white polka-dot cravat. His head is inclined, and his gaze is directed downwards. It is a passage without a lot of fuss.
By Hans Henrik Brummer
former Director General of the National Museum, Stockholm
For further information
+46-8-453 67 56
Pierre Olbers St Bellies
+46-8-453 67 61
1) We would like to extend our particular thanks to Mr. Eduard Vallès Pallarès for this information.
2) John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume I, 1881–1906, Random House, 1991, p. 110.