Staring out from the canvas, a man holds us fixed in his gaze, his eyes dark orbs that fix the entire colourful composition that surrounds them. Executed in May 1964, Buste d'homme is one of a group of images of men that Picasso created during this period, often taking different guises: many of these appeared to be evolutions of the theme of the painter and his model, upon which Picasso had recently focussed. In addition, he had created a number of related images of men smoking, usually showing a bearded figure, either bald or, as here, with hair.
While Picasso did not himself wear a beard, pictures such as Buste d'homme nonetheless have an element of self-portraiture to them, a notion that is reinforced by the intensity of the man's eyes, so reminiscent of the artist's own. Likewise, the striped top that is visible in Buste d'homme recalls Picasso's own penchant for such clothing during the post-war period. Meanwhile, the face itself has been rendered with a number of annotations that are almost hieroglyphic, for instance the zig-zagging green stripe; while this had appeared in various hues in other pictures of the period, in its newfound incarnation in green, it may resemble the controversial colourist portrait Henri Matisse painted of his wife in 1905, which was nicknamed La raie verte because of its bold use of colour. Perhaps Picasso, whose visual recall and erudition was astonishing - as evidenced by the fact that he seldom painted from life, but instead from his imagination - was paying tribute to his fellow artist and friend, who had died a decade earlier.
Picasso's pictures are often palimpsests, filled with layers of meaning and implication. In Buste d'homme, he appears to be looking both forwards and backwards: the vigorous manner of execution recalls the revival that had come about in his art thanks to the example, some years earlier, of his two youngest children, each of whom was by now a teenager. The directness of the vision of a child had marked Picasso. At the same time, Picasso may have been thinking about the Old Masters and in particular of his own father, superimposing his own features and thereby confronting the ghost of the past. 'Every time I draw a man, I find myself thinking of my father,' Picasso confessed. 'To me, a man means "Don José," and it will always be so, all my life... He wore a beard... All the men I draw I see more or less with his features'. (Picasso, quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, 'Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model', pp. 49-94, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh.cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 94n).