When Velazquez painted a 17th century Spanish princess, he gave her wispy hair, pale skin and a cautious gaze. Three centuries later, Picasso turned the girl's face into a Cubist maze of green and purple, yet he captured her essence - that same mysterious gaze.
It's a Picasso paradox: The 20th century master was the ultimate convention-smashing rebel, and yet he was constantly looking to the work of masters from the past. A massive new exhibit at three Paris museums explores what he learned from other artists, including El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Cezanne, Manet and Gauguin. The exhibit, which matches Picasso paintings alongside those of other masters, is one of France's most expensive art shows ever, racking up a cost of euro4.3 million (US$5.8 million) for fees like insurance and transport for loaned works.
Museums from the Prado in Madrid, Spain, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York lent their treasures to the show, which opens Wednesday. The Grand Palais is the main location, with parallel displays at the Louvre and Orsay Museums.
Throughout his career, Picasso kept a collection of thousands of postcards and slides of art he admired. But the Spanish master wasn't interested in copying them explicitly.
Co-curator Anne Baldassari described Picasso as a "cannibal" _ he ate up works and let them digest. Then he would produce something entirely his own.
"Among all the modern and avant-garde painters, he is the only one who so strongly took on the entire history of painting," said Baldassari, who co-curated the show with Marie-Laure Bernadac. At the Grand Palais, several Cubist Picasso nudes are paired with works he was familiar with: Manet's "Olympia," showing a naked, reclining girl staring insolently at the viewer, and Goya's similar reclining girl, "Maja desnuda" (The Nude Maja). In those cases, the influence on Picasso seems subtle.
In other paintings, the connection is more direct. Picasso painted many Cubist versions of Velazquez's "Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honor), the 17th century masterpiece centered around a wary-looking child princess, Margarita Teresa of Spain. Velazquez' painting uses a classical style and rich, dark tones, while Picasso splashed his similar compositions with bright blues, yellows and greens, turning the protagonists into abstract figures. "Las Meninas," held at the Prado, is one of the rare masterpieces that France was not able to secure on loan _ a copy is projected on the wall instead.
"Picasso and the Masters" runs at the Grand Palais through Feb. 2, along with smaller shows at the Louvre and Orsay Museums. A similar Picasso exhibit will follow at London's National Gallery from Feb. 25 to June 7.