In early 1966, while convalescing at his home in Mougins from surgery, Picasso reread Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. Within a short time a new character entered his repertory of artist-surrogates--the musketeer, or more generally, the 17th century cavalier, the rakish nobleman who was skilled in swordplay, who dared risk all in the loyal service of his companions, and passed up no opportunity for amorous adventure. He was in his tastes and appetites a worldly gentleman and enjoyed all that life had to offer. In the early 1960s Picasso had been fond of depicting himself in the figure of a brawny Mediterranean fisherman, either young or old, with a curly beard and clad in a striped sailor's vest. The dreamily romantic musketeer replaced the salty, working fisherman as the artist's primary persona. Now in his mid-80s, able to travel only locally, and with his vaunted sexual powers finally on the wane, Picasso transformed himself into the recklessly brave and virile musketeer, and in his canvases affected an elegant little beard and long wavy hair, while donning a doublet, ruff, cape and boots. This became the mask he held up most frequently to the world in the paintings, drawings and prints he created during the remaining years of his life.
Picasso painted Mousquetaire et femme à la fleur in early 1967. It may seem an unusual subject at a time when America's war in Vietnam and social unrest everywhere dominated the headlines. The world's greatest living artist appeared to have retreated into a world of "backward-looking romantics and nostalgic dreamers" (M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 82). Picasso's view of the musketeers is invariably comic and mock-heroic; these soldiers of derring-do often appear ridiculous and overblown in their grandiose self-confidence. This subject may be tinged with Picasso's antiwar views, expressed in the ironic image of a man ordinarily inclined to bellicose behavior, who had caused such senseless mayhem and carnage through the centuries. Here, beguiled a comely nude maiden who offers him a flower, the haughty musketeer seems harmless enough.
This is a delightfully amorous scene--it is impossible to overlook the phallic significance of the plant stem and the bursting flower, which also resembles a loaded paint brush. These young lovers suggest a contemporary context as well. In the place of the cavalier and his sweetheart, one might easily imagine a young long-haired hippie and his flower child girlfriend, rather like those young people who liked to gather outside the artist's gate at Mougins in the hope of gaining admittance for an audience with the master. The Human Be-In had recently taken place in San Francisco; this widely publicized event served as a prelude to the celebrated Summer of Love, the seminal counter-cultural phenomenon of the late 1960s that was recently commemorated in an exhibition at Tate London, and the Whitney in New York. Picasso liked young people, who responded in kind by flocking to the important show of his late work in the Palais des Papes in Avignon in 1970, and the posthumous exhibition at the same venue in 1973, where they would have enjoyed pictures very much like this one. One reason Picasso's late paintings now seem so fresh and full of verve is, as Pierre Daix has observed, because he "painted as the adolescents of the 1970s were going to paint in the 1980s" (quoted in Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 365).
The first appearance of the 17th century cavalier in Picasso's late work occurred in one of his early artist and model paintings, dated 13-14 March 1963, which Picasso revealed to his friend Hélène Parmelin as being "Rembrandt and Saskia." It was recorded under this title in the Zervos catalogue (vol. 23, no. 171; fig. 1). Picasso had in mind a similarly titled work by Rembrandt, in which the young artist, wearing a stylish hat and sword, frolics with his wife Saskia (fig. 2). Picasso had recently entered into a close and extended study of Rembrandt; he increasingly identified with the Dutch painter, who likewise had a long and fulfilling career, and was also fond of inserting himself, in one guise or another, into his paintings. Picasso was especially interested in Rembrandt's drawings and etchings, the quality and variety of which he sought to emulate in his own works in these media. In 1986 John Richardson found a set of the six-volume catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings compiled by Otto Benesch in Picasso's library, and noted "these are apparently what engaged the artist's attention during his convalescence from his operation in November 1965" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 34).
Picasso's choice of the baroque cavalier had the advantage of connecting with an entire network of old masters. Besides the painters of the Dutch school there was Velázquez and his compatriots, summoned forth from the Siglo de Oro of Picasso's own native Spain. Picasso was also thinking of a painting by his favorite early 19th century classicist, J.A.D. Ingres, who in 1814 depicted an imagined tryst between the Renaissance master Raphael and La Fornarina, the artist's lover and model (fig. 3). In 1968 Picasso made a series of etchings on the theme of La Fornarina, which were published in the suite 347 (Bloch, nos. 1776-1799)
Inspired by his reading of Dumas' novel, Picasso drew figures in 17th century costume in a carnet that he used in March-April 1966, including a depiction of a cavalier/painter in front of his model. The musketeer paintings evolved as an increasingly independent series from Picasso's artist and model paintings of the early 1960s; the male-female attraction seen here clearly reflects the earlier theme. The first oil painting of a full-fledged musketeer was done on 20 February 1967, and shows a Velázquez-like cavalier holding a palette and brush (Zervos, vol. 25, no. 280). On the next day Picasso painted Homme et femme nue, in which a cavalier embraces a naked girl who is seated on his lap (Zervos, vol. 25, no. 285). The present painting was done the following month, and is Picasso's third canvas that shows both a cavalier and a nude. The musketeer theme preoccupied Picasso through the late spring, but made way for other subjects during the summer and fall. He returned to the musketeers at the beginning of 1968, and in October of that year he began an important series of large bust--and full-length seated musketeer portraits in which the gentlemen are seen smoking a pipe (Zervos, vol. 27, no. 366; fig. 4).
The musketeer paintings were Picasso's final major series of variations on a theme. This subject provided an opportunity to investigate two aspects of art-making that were foremost among Picasso's concerns during these final years. First, he was preoccupied with tradition: the musketeers served a means by which Picasso could engage the great artists of the past whom he admired, allowing him to arrive at an understanding of his own position and achievement within the continuity and traditions of European painting. Secondly, Picasso was interested in the process of art-making, and the musketeer subject perfectly suited Picasso's work habits at this time. The artist was now pursuing a serial procedure, painting numerous variations on a theme, as a stimulating means of examining, assimilating and re-interpreting a subject, style or manner. Indeed, Picasso had become increasingly engaged in a process in which the act of painting, not the completed painting, had become an end sufficient in itself. Picasso described how he took special pleasure in the "movement of the painting, the dramatic effort from one vision to the next, even if the effort is not carried through. I have reached the stage where the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself" (quoted in K. Gallwitz, Picasso Laureatus, Paris, 1971, p. 166). In 1956 Picasso told Alexander Liberman, the editor of Vogue magazine, that "Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search incessantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. That is why I number them. It's an experiment in time" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 72).
The musketeer series was indeed an "experiment in time," and in more than one sense. It was in fact a significant exercise in sequential imaging, as Picasso describes above. Moreover, this series was also a journey into time, one that followed a route from Picasso's Mougins studio in the late twentieth century to Dumas' novel written in the mid-nineteeth, the age of Ingres, and then three centuries further back into the past, to the Baroque era of Rembrandt and Velázquez, and then Raphael before them. As Picasso approached and passed his ninetieth year and became increasingly reclusive, all for the love of his work, and as the real world of physical delight receded from his grasp, an inner world not subject to the boundaries of time or place evolved in its stead. Picasso constructed a virtual "theater of memory" as he delved into all the distant recesses that made up the complex life of his mind, and for the rich traditions implicit in the process of his late work, he assembled his own musée imaginaire. Here he was the sole artificer, arbiter and curator, in a place that contained the genius of many centuries, all at the service of his own.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt et Saskia, 13-14 March 1963. Private collection. BARCODE 20627676
(fig. 2) Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt and Saskia, circa 1635. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. BARCODE 20627669
(fig. 3) J.A.D. Ingres, Raphael and the Fornarina, 1814; Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge. BARCODE 24411202
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Homme à la pipe, 7 November 1968. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 November, 2007, lot 5. BARCODE 25951882