In 1963, after almost ten years of finding inspiration in the iconography of Old Masters such as Velázquez, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Ingres, Picasso suddenly curtailed the use of allusive references to the past, limiting them to his etchings, while in his painting and drawings he concentrated on the essential relationship between the artist and his model. There are numerous variants on this theme that absorbed him intermittently throughout his remaining years: in some the artist is seen with his easel in front of him as he gazes at his model, in others the artist is alone with his troubled thoughts, or the nude body of the model alone fills the canvas. In a few examples Picasso humorously turns the tables on himself and places the model at the easel, brush in hand.
In this series the artist is both voyeur and creator, and the model is the world itself, revealed through the reality of the artist's medium. Picasso reaffirmed his attachment to the external world and the presence of the "subject" in his works, at a time when many artists were talking of doing away with both. However, the artist's intent is far from being purely philosophical, nor is it meant to serve as a commentary on his craft. "The more Picasso painted this theme, the more he pushed the artist-model relationship towards its ultimate conclusion: the artist embraces his model, canceling out the barrier of the canvas and transforming the artist-model relationship into a man-woman relationship. Painting is an act of love, according to Gert Schiff, and John Richardson speaks of 'sex as metaphor for art, and art as a metaphor for sex'" (M.-L. Bernadac, "Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model," Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 77).
Picasso was fond of wearing a striped fisherman's jersey of the kind seen in this work, and was occasionally photographed in it (fig.1). The figure of the Mediterranean fisherman, the hardy sailor and dauntless sea voyager, was rich with resonance for Picasso. As a traveler he reminded Picasso of his own youth in Spain, when he had journeyed from Malaga to La Coruña to Madrid and then to Barcelona, before leaving Spain for a life and career in France. Also, to an artist steeped in the traditions of the Mediterranean, the sailor represented an ancient type, and embodied a culture whose very origins and evolution owed everything to the sea as a source of sustenance and an avenue for commerce. Indeed, the presence of the striped jersey also may allude to Matisse; Picasso could have had in mind his friend's powerful Fauve Autoportrait (fig. 2) painted in Collioure during the summer of 1906. He would have remembered this painting well; it was in the collection of Michael and Sarah Stein.
It has been widely assumed that Picasso's depictions of men attired in this manner represent some kind of self-portrait, in which the figure depicted has become a surrogate or avatar for the artist. It seems likely that Picasso liked to project himself into these men whom he had created on canvas and on paper and identified with certain of their characteristics. Especially as he grew older, and when his famous sexual powers were on the wane, Picasso developed a fondness for inserting himself into his pictorial scenarios under the guise of a virile younger man, although he might as easily drop all pretense and depict himself just as he appeared, still with a powerful bull-like physique, tanned but white-haired and bald, or sometimes even with a grizzled beard, which he actually never wore. In the present version, he has a very wholesome, almost debonair appearance, that of a cocky youth, which seems to run counter to the rough and ready he-man demeanor which the artist generally ascribed to this subject. The dreamily romantic musketeer eventually replaced the salty, working fisherman as the artist's primary persona, although the fisherman's vest reappeared throughout the rest of his life.
(fig. 1) Picasso in his striped fisherman's jersey, with bread fingers, 1952. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Autoportrait, Collioure, 1906. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.