With his elaborate moustache and goatee beard, long curls and clad in a seventeenth-century doublet, the subject of Pablo Picasso’s Buste d’homme is instantly recognisable as the figure of the musketeer, the character who, perhaps more than any other, has come to define the artist’s late work. Many of Picasso's musketeers proclaim their Spanish heritage in his use of the national colours of blood red and golden yellow, which, here, contrast powerfully with the white of the subject’s face and the blue and purple of his hair. The large-eyed stare of the sitter is reminiscent of the artist’s famously powerful, dark eyed mirada fuerte. Painted in May 1969, Buste d’homme dates from one of the most prolific years of Picasso’s life, a time when he was painting with an irrepressible verve, filling canvas after canvas with bold, gestural and highly coloured images.
In early 1966, while in Mougins convalescing from surgery that he had undergone some months previously, Picasso re-read Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. He had just begun painting again, and before long a new character entered his work, the musketeer, or the Spanish version of the seventeenth-century cavalier, the hidalgo, a rakish nobleman skilled with the sword and daring in his romantic exploits. The brave and virile musketeer was strongly identifiable with the aging artist himself, but also provided Picasso with a pretext to indulge in his love of Rembrandt, Velázquez and other great painters of the past.
Picasso was fond of his musketeers, and liked to ascribe personal qualities to them. Hélène Parmelin recalled how Picasso would play games in front of the canvases; he would point to one or another musketeer and remark, ‘With this one you'd better watch out. That one makes fun of us. That one is enormously satisfied. This one is a grave intellectual. And that one look how sad he is, the poor guy. He must be a painter’ (H. Parmelin, quoted in exh. cat., Picasso: Tradition and Avant-garde, Madrid, 2006, p. 340). The musketeers embody a virtual catalogue of varied human foibles, for which they appear to compensate with the irresistible force of their idealism. Picasso must have lamented a growing absence in the contemporary world of the recklessly individual spirit: the man of purposeful idea and action, a world-transforming genius, as he had been in his youthful career. In this respect, Picasso's appropriation of the musketeer image was an effort to reclaim a heroic stance in life, to affirm his ability, through wit and skill, to remain master of his fate during this final stage of his long life.