‘Picasso is often heard to say that when he paints, all the painters are with him in the studio. Or rather behind him. Watching him. Those of yesterday, and those of today… A painter in solitude is never alone’
(H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, trans. C. Trollope, London, 1969, p. 40)
Painted on 25 March 1967, Le Peintre is a gestural and emphatic declaration of Pablo Picasso’s lifelong identity as an artist. At this time, painting had become the primary component of the artist’s output, as well as the singular theme and subject of his art. Throughout the 1960s, he entered into battle with some of the most revered artists and masterpieces of the past; he depicted the studio, the artist and the model in countless iterations, honing in on the sacred, secret moment of inspiration and the ensuing artistic creation; and he painted himself, shown either in the guise of the swashbuckling musketeer, or, as Le Peintre shows, as a painter, with paintbrush and palette in hand.
Here, Picasso has combined the two leading protagonists of this period: the musketeer and the artist. The profile of a curly haired, moustachioed man with an ornate white ruffled collar dominates the large canvas. He is holding a palette and brush in his hand, leading the viewer to assume that he is standing in front of an unseen easel, engaged in the act of painting. The musketeer had first appeared in Picasso’s work just a few months before he painted Le Peintre. After undergoing surgery in the autumn of 1965, the artist endured a long period of convalescence that he spent at his home, Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins. During this time he immersed himself in the world of literature, as well as the great art of the past. Reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Dickens and Balzac, his mind was filled with visions of a long-gone age and an assortment of heroic male characters.
It was at this time that Picasso also became increasingly interested in Rembrandt, both his art and his life. When his wife, Jacqueline was later asked where her husband had found the character of the musketeer, she responded simply, ‘They came to Pablo when he’d gone back to studying Rembrandt’ (J. Roque-Picasso, quoted in G. Schiff, Picasso The Last Years, 1963-1973, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 31). He increasingly identified with the great Dutch artist, who like him, had enjoyed a long and prolific career. ‘You and I, old fellow’, Picasso once said of himself and Rembrandt, ‘are the only ones who can paint everything’ (Picasso quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, 1993, p. 355). At around this time, Picasso projected Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) onto his studio wall, discussing it with Jacqueline and others, and John Richardson, the artist’s biographer and friend, noted Picasso’s interest in monographs of the Dutch artist and volumes of his drawings that he had pored over during his recuperation (J. Richardson, Picasso: Mosqueteros, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 19).
All of these influences came together in early 1967 when Picasso returned to oil painting. A new figure now materialized on his canvases: the rakishly handsome, swashbuckling musketeer. This daring adventurer, the very incarnation of vitality and virility, would be the last in a long line of artist-surrogates that populated Picasso’s work. ‘When things were going well’, Jacqueline recalled, ‘he would come down from the studio saying, “They’re coming! They’re still coming”’ (J. Picasso, quoted in A. Malraux, Picasso’s Mask, trans. J. Guicharnaud, New York, 1994, p. 78). These musketeers served as an emphatic symbol of life, masculinity and above all, virility. Now in his mid-80s, able to travel only locally, and with his vaunted sexual powers on the wane, Picasso transformed himself into the brave, adventurous and virile musketeer, clad in ornate costumes and involved in daring escapades, romantic exploits and heroic deeds.
By the spring of this year, the figure of the musketeer began to merge with that of the painter, a character who had dominated Picasso’s work of the 1960s. Instead of a lance or sword, Picasso depicted the musketeer brandishing a paintbrush, and often paired this painter-musketeer character with a reclining nude. Paired with a palette and brush – the defining symbol of painterly creation – the musketeer of Le Peintre affirms Picasso’s unimpeded creative powers as he defiantly fought the passage of time with his unceasing creativity and prodigious artistic powers. As John Richardson wrote, ‘Picasso, who never quite outgrew his birth-right of black beliefs and superstitions, put his faith in his miracle-working paintbrushes and the death-defying images of carnality that they engendered’ (J. Richardson, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters: Beaton, Capote, Dalí, Picasso, Freud, Warhol, and More, London, 2001, p. 238).
Le Peintre could also be seen to evoke another artist whom Picasso greatly admired: Vincent Van Gogh. Picasso was said to have felt a strong affiliation with the Dutch artist, referring to him, John Richardson states, as his patron saint (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, ‘L’Époque Jacqueline’, in Late Picasso, op. cit., p. 32). It is said that he used to project one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits onto his studio walls and, as Hélène Parmelin, a friend of the artist who spent a great deal of time with him towards the end of his life, recalled, ‘Picasso talks about Van Gogh all the time, and thinks about him all the time… For him, Van Gogh is the one painter whose life was exemplary, up to and including his death’ (H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, trans. C. Trollope, London, 1969, p. 37). Unlike the other artists to whom Picasso looked to in his late career – Delacroix, Manet, Velázquez and Rembrandt, amongst others – his artistic dialogue with Van Gogh went beyond the appropriation of compositions or themes, manifesting itself as a deep spiritual identification with the artist. Using the same vigorous, expressive and instinctive brushwork, Picasso, like Van Gogh, painted his own image countless times, creating powerful works that boldly declare, affirm and celebrate his life-long identity as an artist.