Towards the end of 1965, Pablo Picasso was admitted to the American Hospital of Paris, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, for surgery on an ulcer. He was 84 years old. During his period of convalescence, he is known to have read many classic and epic works of literature, including those by Shakespeare and Alexander Dumas’s classic novel, The Three Musketeers, while immersing himself in study of the masterpieces of Rembrandt.
It’s no coincidence that when Picasso was well enough to start painting again, in 1967, swashbuckling musketeers suddenly became a mainstay of his canvases — and remained so for the next five years. Today these works can be found in important private collections and museums worldwide. For his biographer, John Richardson, they represented the artist’s ‘monumental apotheosis’.
On May 26, Picasso’s 1969 musketeer painting, Buste d’homme dans un cadre, will be offered from the estate of Sir Sean Connery in the 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
This particular musketeer’s features evoke traits of notable literary figures as well as those of the artist himself, masterful in its strikingly vibrant palette, liberally and sumptuously painted. The mélange of history and modernism evident in Buste d’homme dans un cadre typifies Picasso’s significant aptitude to fuse the duelling forces of past and present – exploring the constant paradox of an artist steeped in the great histories of the past yet deeply committed to constant innovation. Picasso remained on the cutting edge of the shifting the boundaries of art, even at this late stage in his life.
His musketeer’s goatee beard suggests Dumas’ protagonist, d’Artagnan, sharing too the character’s general air of affability. Interestingly, Picasso seems to have taken a modicum of inspiration, too, from portraits of Cardinal Richelieu (the historical figure who, in Dumas’ novel, serves as d’Artagnan and the eponymous musketeers’ nemesis). Like the cardinal, Picasso’s facial hair and cheekbones cut a dramatic profile.
The Spaniard once said that ‘every artist takes himself for Rembrandt’, and the Dutch Old Master is another figure whose influence can be discerned in Buste d’homme dans un cadre. In his final years, Picasso regularly had a slide of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch (1642), projected for days on end onto a wall in his studio in Mougins. The musketeers of this masterwork of painting duly stepped into Picasso’s world and surely informed his own depictions of the same type of figure.
Dumas’ novel is set during the reign of the French King, Louis XIII, only a decade or so before The Night Watch was painted. By the mid-20th century, however, the romantic notion of the classic musketeer had become confined to history, his particular aptitude for musketry long since become redundant in battle. In the modern age, after the event of the first-half of the 20th century, they seemed frankly quaint, and Picasso invests these figures with nostalgia.
In the painting coming to auction, Picasso’s palette is saturated and bright, and his subject’s head and shoulders deconstructed. This creates a sense of youthful energy and innovation, in keeping with Dumas’ characterisation of his musketeers as rakish adventurers. It’s as if part of Picasso’s nostalgia here, given his old age and recent infirmity, is for the long-gone pleasures and pursuits of his youth.
In a similar function fulfilled by his earlier matadors, Picasso’s musketeers now represented an alter ego for the artist himself. The intense black eyes of the subject, once again reminisce of Picasso’s own. The smoke bubbles that rise up part of the right side of the canvas and above the musketeer’s head in the top left of it appear to suggest a pipe held by the subject, out of sight. According to Richardson, for most of Picasso’s life, tobacco had been ‘his only stimulant’ (the occasional glass of wine aside). At the time of his surgery, however, he was convinced to give up smoking for good, for the sake of his health. Richardson wrote that Picasso’s depiction of many of his musketeers engaged in the act of smoking reflected his own ‘nostalgia for tobacco’.
The title of this picture, incidentally, translates as ‘Bust of a man in a frame’. The frame in question is a yellow one with baroque ornamentation, which Picasso playfully executed as a trompe l’oeil device within the painting itself (there is also an actual frame). It’s a device pretty much unique in the artist’s oeuvre and suggests a measure of importance imbued on this particular portrait as worthy of reverence. This framing device, and certainly the surface, owes no little debt to van Gogh. The gestural swirls of richly applied paint recall those for which the Dutchman is renowned — and can be seen all over the canvas, for example in the subject’s ruff.
In dramatic contrast to Van Gogh, whom during his time found little recognition, Picasso had long since become the most famous artist of his own day by the time of creating Buste d’homme dans un cadre. Looking back on his long lifetime of significant achievement, he draws from the past, absorbing elements from across the western cultural canon of greatness, and inserts himself into history by appropriating it—creating triumphal paintings that are brilliantly and undeniably his own.
Buste d’homme dans un cadre — which is appearing at auction for the first time — is described by Adrien Meyer, Co-Chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s, as ‘one of the best works of Picasso’s late period ever to come to market’. (The artist passed away four years after painting it, aged 91.) ‘It is without doubt one of Picasso’s best “musketeer” paintings’, adds Elaine Holt, Deputy Chairman and International Director at Christie’s Asia Pacific. ‘Enhancing its importance is its incomparable provenance, which binds together two icons of the 20th Century — the great Picasso and Sir Sean Connery, a giant of the silver screen and art connoisseur extraordinaire’.
Sir Sean, probably best known for being the first actor to play James Bond, was a keen art collector. His son Stephane Connery says that Sir Sean ‘had an extraordinary sense of aesthetics, composition and movement, honed by his career [in film]’. One of many Picassos in his collection, Buste d’homme dans un cadre was purchased privately. In the main, Connery preferred works from earlier in the artist’s career. However, he made an exception in this instance — because of what Stephane refers to as the painting’s ‘expressive power and freedom’. Apparently, the actor ‘loved the impasto surface and… painted frame’.
At this point, one is bound to consider the intersection of the work’s former owner, the artist, his artistic heroes and his swashbuckling subjects. Sir Sean’s most famous on-screen identity was fiercely adventurous, innovative and determined; a romanticised vision of the modern hero. This iconic vision of greatness relates to Picasso’s own position within the history of the art of the 20th century — the fearless beacon of artistic exploration. In turn, this archetype of masculinity is echoed through the artistic forebearers to whom he pays homage, and their shared musketeer subjects who represent those same aspirations. Sir Sean’s own image remains as iconic in the visual culture of the 20th century as Picasso’s musketeers in their time. His generous philanthropy in offering this work to its next owner completes the chivalrous circle.