Like many artists, Picasso looked to the history of art for inspiration. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s he focused with particular intensity on individual works by past masters, making variations in painting, drawing, sculpture, and prints. The work of these historic figures had a catalytic impact on Picasso at a time when contemporary art—the various forms of Abstract Expressionism, for example—was going in directions counter to his own aesthetic concerns.
Picasso based this work on one of Rembrandt van Rijn's most revered etchings. He reinterpreted the religious scene as a secular one, depicting a theater filled with the people who had populated his life and art.
Gallery label from Picasso: Variations and Themes, March 28–September 30, 2010.