The obstreperously mustachioed gentleman that Picasso chose to portray as Buste d’homme on 12 October 1968—close-up and larger than life, filling the canvas—is a member of his imaginary company of mousquetaires, characters whose brash, even raffish qualities, ironic foibles, and fabled exploits he employed to give voice to his own rich inner life, long and well lived, and to offer commentary on events of the day. The artist would mark his 87th birthday on 25 October—he knew full well he was painting against whatever finite measure of time then remained to him. Picasso surprised many, and baited the critics, by steering clear of the tenebrous, fatalistic gravitas that Goya painted into his late works, and instead celebrated the less portentous side of the human comedy—all-inclusive, raucously joyful—in both the light and shade of his own accumulated wisdom. He made the mousquetaires his signature, valedictory theme.
Formally attired in a ruff collar and an ornate doublet, this mousquetaire is a rare exception among his comrades—instead of sitting for the painter abundantly bewigged or sporting a wide-brimmed, floppy hat, he wears instead his plumed metal helmet, beneath which he stares forth, eyes wide open, as if fixed in a state of perpetual astonishment. Picasso liked to project elements of himself into these soldierly types, most tellingly here the riveting mirada fuerte—the “strong gaze” of his own coal-black, all-seeing eyes. History—and his place in it—was always on Picasso’s mind; he conceived his mousquetaires as proxy agents through whom he could explore the glories of 17th-century Baroque painting, the age of Velázquez and Rembrandt, the tradition to which he was heir, and three centuries later—in his scope and achievement as a painter—the two old masters’ rightful peer.
Precursors to the mousquetaires are the 17th-century cavalier painters that Picasso introduced into his artist and model canvases, the fundamental theme of his final decade, an extensive, ongoing series that he commenced in February 1963. The transformation from a courtly master of the brush to the more widely characterizable, at times even rambunctious mousquetaire took place in the wake of emergency surgery Picasso secretly underwent in Paris, to remove an inflamed duodenal ulcer, in November 1965. Slowly convalescing during 1966, the artist devoured literature, revisiting his favorite classics, including Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), which John Richardson has stated “he evidently knew by heart” (Picasso Mosqueteros, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009, p. 20). Picasso’s reading also included the plays of Shakespeare. Most significantly for his art, he had been studying Otto Benesch’s six-volume compendium of Rembrandt’s drawings, published in 1957, which he kept in his library.
Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the inseparable Three Musketeers of Dumas’s classic novel—with the youthful newcomer d’Artagnan at their side—risked all to protect their king. Brought back to life during the late 1960s, they served as bodyguard and inspiration to Picasso as well. Nearly twenty film adaptations of the musketeers’ adventures had been produced between 1903 and 1961. The first Picasso mousquetaires appeared as swordsmen in three drawings dated 29 December 1966 (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 246, 257, and 258). When he resumed painting on canvas on 20-21 February 1967, the transformation into period attire had been accomplished; both canvases he painted on those days show an artist costumed as a 17th-century cavalier, paintbrush and palette in hand (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 280-281). Troops of mousquetaires, typically en buste or in half-figure length, soon sprang forth, including the first pipe-smokers. The thirty canvases that Picasso painted during September-November 1968, including the present Buste d’homme, represent the crest of the initial wave of mousquetaires—many of them depict their subject congenially puffing on his pipe while presumably regarding the passing parade of people and daily events.
The pipe alludes to genre paintings of the 17th-century Dutch school, as well as more recent models, such as Edouard Manet’s Le bon bock (Wildenstein, no. 213). Picasso often depicted pipe-smoking bohemian characters during his Blue and Rose periods; the most instantly recognizable motif in certain cubist figure paintings is a pipe, and the object itself becomes emblematic of the artist’s presence in his still-life subjects. The manly recreation of pipe-smoking takes on a sexual connotation as well; in its exaggerated length, the pipe becomes a phallic symbol. Throughout his life a heavy smoker, Picasso had to give up cigarettes following his surgery. “Age has forced us to abandon smoking, but the desire remains,” he commiserated with the photographer Brassaï. “It’s the same with love” (quoted in M.L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 455).
Picasso’s sudden obsession with the mousquetaires seemed to many a willfully odd and retrograde pursuit during the radical tumult of the Sixties, especially while America’s war in Vietnam dominated the headlines, and Paris was still reeling from les jours de Mai, the momentous student uprising in 1968. Many in the art world moreover assumed that Picasso was thumbing his nose at the new aesthetics of the day, including minimal and conceptual art, when even the future of painting as a viable art form seemed in doubt.
That the artist had insinuated his well-known, long-held anti-war views into the picaresque demeanor of these military misfits was obvious from the outset, but Picasso’s broader significance for the Sixties scene has been assessed only more recently in Dakin Hart’s essay “Peace and Love Picasso,” in which the author characterized the mousquetaires as “a kind of multinational, trans-historical hippie army engaged in a catalogue of alternatives to fighting.”
“Picasso chose Dumas’s musketeers as a subject,” Hart explained, “because they provided ideal raw material for the construction of a martial counterculture. As soldiers, Dumas’s musketeers are (in a very typically Picassian way) more dedicated to the cult of life than to the organized business of death… Picasso deployed the only forces under his control, in the way that made the most sense to him, turning his musketeers into an extended commentary, not on the war in Vietnam per se, but on war in general... His reactions to contemporary events may be veiled in anachronistic costumes, art historical quotations and centuries-old literary references, but the spirit of his work is perfectly of the moment” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, pp. 254-255).