The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC displays The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini with additions by Titian (1514/1529), The Old Musician by Edouard Manet (1862), and The Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso (1905). These major works talk to each other.* We might say that the Bellini is a work of art, the Manet is a work about art, and the Picasso is about the artist.
Bellini’s painting illustrates a story from Ovid (Fasti I:415ff.). Mario Equicola, a courtier in service to the Duke of Ferrara, had given Bellini detailed and learned instructions about how to represent the original passage (Colantuono 1991). Equicola argued that poetry was the greater art; painting was merely derivative. Some contemporaries disagreed with this assessment, but all expected art to represent classic texts: usually Scripture, but in this case a pagan myth.
Bellini creates a kind of set for the gods, a flat area with a backdrop (which is now mostly Titian’s work). The characters are shown frozen in the midst of action.
The artist counts on certain expectations that make the image easily legible. As usual in Renaissance art, light comes from a sun behind the viewer’s left shoulder. Space is reserved between the major objects and the edges of the canvas, so that the scene is “framed” both aesthetically and literally. Objects that are further away are not only smaller but blurrier and lit differently from those at center-stage (sfumato). Although the characters are Greco-Roman gods, they wear costumes and hold props from Bellini’s own time. Their bodies and other objects are represented with glowing detail; for example, the ceramics represent the earliest depictions of Chinese porcelain in European art.
If this is what we expect from art, then it is hard to see how anyone could surpass Bellini. He knows all the tools and techniques. He can represent round objects and faces rotated on all axes; light reflecting on metal, glass, porcelain, and liquid; water flowing through space; shadows and highlights; and naked and clothed bodies with discernible weight. But once this kind of painting has been produced at a high level for several centuries, the whole approach could become tired–especially once artists become enthusiastic about radically different styles from other cultures and times.
Manet’s The Old Musician bears some similarities to Bellini’s work. Again, several characters are presented on a flat stage with a tree and the sky behind them and light coming from the upper-left. However, the edges of this image cut right through one human figure and the tree, reminding us that we are looking at a painted canvas. Especially in the foreground and around the boy’s silhouette, the paint strokes are easily legible (another reminder that this is a painting). A horizon is visible, but the background is ambiguous. Flat ground behind the boy seems to morph into a low wall behind the young man. The sun casts shadows to the right of the violinist but to the left of the man in the tall hat. Perhaps the setting is the outskirts of Paris or another great city, but the location is obscure.
And there is no story. Maybe the people will move later on, but they are not evidently in the midst of doing anything now. The musician has stopped playing his violin, which might have animated them before. No character looks at any other, except that the musician stares at us.
You need a guide, such as Charles Fried (Fried 1969) or David Luban (Luban 1994) to tell you that the figures here are quoted from previous works of art, including an ancient statue of the philosopher Chrysippus, Watteau’s Pierrot (1718-19), and Manet’s own Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). The subject of this painting is not any story but art itself. The tradition within which Bellini painted has come to an end, like a tune previously played by a musician who is now “old.”
The figures in Manet’s painting are timeless and may combine costumes from diverse periods, but it’s safe to say that they are socially marginal. The young girl is barefoot and responsible for a baby. This is not a conventional family or a respectable organization but perhaps a band of homeless people. One of them, the violinist, is clearly a kind of artist, and the painting implies that artists in general are outsiders. In contrast, Bellini had painted his work for the private study of Duke Alfonso d’Este. From Bellini to Manet, successful artists have evolved from well-placed courtiers to bohemians.
Picasso was a spiritual heir to Manet. A young migrant from Spain, living in bohemian Paris among poets and artists, he embraced a marginal and critical role. He and such friends as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire regularly visited the circus, where they felt (or at least claimed) an affinity with the performers. In The Family of Saltimbanques, Picasso depicts a group of acrobats from the lowest tier of that profession. The landscape is even emptier than in the Manet.
The harlequin figure may be a self-portrait, the large jester is probably Apollinaire, the woman may be Picasso’s lover and model Fernande Olivier, and the girl may represent an orphan whom Olivier and Picasso had recently adopted, only to return her–rejected–to an orphanage. This image, then, is self-referential and confessional, in contrast to the outward stance of both Bellini and Manet. It exemplifies Picasso’s Rose Period, which had recently succeeded his Blue Period, and it can be understood as an objective correlative of the painter’s evolving mood.
These three paintings share several motifs. For instance, the feet. The Naiads in the Bellini are barefoot, per Ovid:
Naides effusis aliae sine pectinis usu, 405 pars aderant positis arte manuque comis; illa super suras tunicam collecta ministrat, altera dissuto pectus aperta sinu; exserit haec umerum, vestes trahit illa per herbas, impediunt teneros vincula nulla pedes. There were Naiads, some whose hair flowed down without a comb, others having arranged it by hand with skill. This one serves with her tunic gathered above her calf, another opens the robe to reveal her breast: This one uncovers a shoulder, another drags her hem in the grass No tender foot is shackled with a shoe.
These naked feet are meant to be mildly erotic. Not so with Manet, whose shoeless young girl is poor and encumbered with an infant. With her dirty feet, she may refer to Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto (1604-6). And Picasso’s saltimbanques wear slippers for acrobatics.
All three paintings relate in important ways to poems. I’ve mentioned that Bellini’s work illustrates a passage from Ovid’s Fasti. This is a somewhat distasteful story. Priapus (whom Bellini shows erect under his tunic) is about to rape a Naiad named Lotis while she sleeps, but a donkey brays, awakening the whole company and subjecting Priapus to ridicule. He then kills the donkey with his scythe. (In Bellini’s version, it looks as if Mercury was already watching before the donkey brayed.)
Manet’s friend Baudelaire encouraged him to paint modern society. These lines of Baudelaire’s can be compared with The Old Musician:
À une Mendiante rousse Blanche fille aux cheveux roux, Dont la robe par ses trous Laisse voir la pauvreté Et la beauté ..., To a Redhead Beggar Girl Pale girl with auburn hair Whose clothes though their holes Let your poverty show And beauty ...
Most of all, the fifth of Rilke’s great Duino Elegies is entirely about Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, with which he lived (in the Munich home of Hertha Koenig) for several months in 1915, after having seen the same painting in Paris. The poem addresses each character in turn.
Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst, die dringend von früh an wringt ein wem, wem zu Liebe niemals zufriedener Wille? Sondern er wringt sie, biegt sie, schlingt sie und schwingt sie, wirft sie und fängt sie zurück; wie aus geölter, glatterer Luft kommen sie nieder auf dem verzehrten, von ihrem ewigen Aufsprung dünneren Teppich, diesem verlorenen Teppich im Weltall. [...] But who are they, tell me, these drifters, just a bit More fleeting than ourselves, wrung out from early on-- by whom, for whose desire, by what insatiable will? Instead, it wrestles them, bends them, loops them and swings them, throws them and catches them again; as if through oiled, slippery air, they come down on the worn-out mat, worn ever thinner by their constant leaping, this carpet that is spent in space. [...]
Rilke takes Picasso’s static image and gives it a story, a before-and-after, much as Bellini had turned Ovid’s narrative into a snapshot. Not only does Rilke imagine that the acrobats were jumping before the calm moment captured in paint, but he discusses how they gradually learned to leap.
He begins a later stanza:
Ach und um diese Mitte, die Rose des Zuschauns: blüht und entblättert. Oh and about this center, the rose of onlooking: it blooms and sheds its leaves.
Most translations (collected by Martin Travers) presume that the acrobats form the rose. That is probably correct. However, I suspect that Picasso is also the “rose of onlooking.” During his Rose Period, his pink-ish mood suffuses his work. The painting is a kind of self-portrait as well as an answer to Manet and the tradition of narrative art that preceded them both.
*Picasso definitely knew The Old Musician. Manet may not have known The Feast of the Gods, which was in England in his day. He’s responding to the overall tradition of European painting. References: Anthony Colantuono (1991) “Dies Alcyoniae: The Invention of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods,” The Art Bulletin, 73:2, 237-256; Michael Fried (1969), “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859-1865,” ArtForum, vol. 7 no. 7; David Luban (1994) Legal Modernism, University of Michigan Press. See also: Velazquez, The Spinners; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); Manet’s “Old Musician” (from 2004).