Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (1906)

Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse is yet another masterpiece critics praise without trying to explain. Either they believe it has no meaning or that explaining it is impossible. That is no reason not to try. The more difficult an image is to interpret, the more you will experience aesthetic satisfaction when you do start to understand it. Richardson searched for Picasso's sources but gave up, calling the picture "derivative."1 The painting, though, must mean something; all masterpieces do and it is our job to figure them out. Sources, as always, are key. The two figures - horse and boy - first appeared as a sketch for a much larger masterpiece that was never finished.2  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1906) Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York

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In that one the boy and horse are accompanied by a twinned couple. The mounted boy (far left) also appears in a separate drawing. Picasso must have had this in mind, as he drew this horse facing into the canvas, that the word for easel in both French and Spanish is derived from horse. Chevalet in French; caballete in Spanish. The traditional easel has four legs and it faces, like Picasso's horse on the left, into the image.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, The Watering Hole (1906)

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No expert seems to have noticed that the horse in the picture under discussion is derived from Mantegna's Parnassus in the Louvre. Parnassus was the mythic home of the arts. Hermes and Pegasus, the winged horse, are in the right foreground of Mantegna's image (far left) rather like a signature. This discovery leads to another homonym. Pegasus in Spanish is Pegaso. The reason why Picasso changed his last name from Ruiz to Picasso is now much clearer as revealed in the analysis of another painting, Picasso's Parade

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Mantegna, Parnassus, detail of right foreground (1497) Tempera and gold on canvas. The Louvre, Paris
Right: Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, detail

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The nude boy extends his arm in what William Rubin called the artist's "laureate gesture"; Meyer Schapiro thought the closed fist drew attention to "the power of the artist's hand".3 His fist is empty because the reins are missing, a mystifying element for scholars. The reins are probably missing because the horse is not really a horse. It is an avatar for a fellow-Spaniard Velazquez. Not only is the boy's bent arm somewhat like a painter's holding a palette but the horse's mane resembles one side of Velazquez's long hair in Las Meninas, the summit of Spanish painting.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Velazquez, Las Meninas, detail (1656)
Right: Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, detail

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Supporting evidence is the letter V for Velazquez formed from shading on the horse's chest above the boy's "laureate gesture5. The hand symbolizes art's craft and Picasso's solidarity with past genius. This also makes sense of the red spot by the horse's mouth. Difficult to explain naturally, it probably refers to the circular red rosette of the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honor once awarded to Ingres and Manet and comparable to the gold chains conferred upon Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Titian. Velazquez proudly displays his own red Order of Santiago in Las Meninas.6

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1906)
Right: Detail of  Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse

Click image to enlarge.

What we are seeing is the birth of a new star. Freshly initiated into the ranks of the great masters (at least in his own mind) Picasso appears as an androgyne in the prime of life and as a horse who represents the great masters before him and who in an earlier life was Pegaso. The youth's left arm is bent like an artist's, the right one clenched in front of the great masters who came before him, and especially Velazquez. It represents an oath, Picasso's oath, that he will lead the great masters into the future by transforming their work and wisdom into his own style in tune with contemporary culture. As you look at the magnificent horse following the shorter boy with the clenched fist, it is worth recalling that Picasso was short too. Moreover, he once remarked that when he painted he felt all the other great masters standing behind him, watching.7

 

See explanations of other works by Pablo Picasso.

Notes:

1. John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. 1 1881-1906 (New York: Random House) 1991, p. 427

2. Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work (London: Victor Gollancz) 1958, pp. 114-5

3. William Rubin, Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: MoMA) 1972, p. 34; The Museum of Modern, Art New York (New York: Harry Abrams) 1997, p.91

4. Velazquez as the greatest Spanish master was the artist the young Picasso most wanted to surpass. Once he had become a Spaniard in Paris, though, Edouard Manet whose understanding of Velazquez is present throughout Manet's oeuvre became increasingly important. There is, in addition, a possible link between the horse and a Leonardo drawing in a private collection of two horsemen. More research is needed but the Leonardo drawing, or a variation on it, might even have influenced Mantegna's rendering of Pegasus. 

5. See entries under the theme Letters in Art for similar examples by both Picasso and others. Disguising letters in other forms is a little-known but very common strategy in art for embedding self-reference.

6. See similar examples under the theme State Honors, especially those by Edouard Manet, an artist Picasso greatly admired. Few scholars yet know how frequently Manet referred to the Legion d'Honneur; it is an important and common referent in his art. By 1906 Picasso was very familiar with Manet's paintings having seen two major exhibitions devoted to him. Manet was clearly top-of-mind. When Gertrude Stein suggested in late 1906 that Picasso preferred the work of Odilon Redon, he replied: ‘Nonsense. Redon is an interesting painter, certainly, but Manet, Manet is a giant.’ (Richardson, ibid., p.416)

7. Hélène Parmelin, Picasso Says..., trans. C. Trollope (New York: A.S.Barnes & Co.) 1969, p. 40

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