During the mid-1960s, a bold, swaggering new character appeared within the menagerie that peopled Pablo Picasso's pictures: the Musketeer. Painted in February 1967, Nu et tête d'homme is from the early stages of the evolution of this character in Picasso's oils and perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of romance and eroticism that pervaded so many of his works during this time. The subject matter appears to have evolved from the theme of the painter and his model, which Picasso had explored again and again over the decades. However, in the mid-1960s, that theme gained a Rembrandtian twist and cavaliers emerged from the eaves, strutting through Picasso's pictures with a rakish swagger and a sense of chivalry. The bravura of the musketeer was matched by the bravura of Picasso's own expressive, vigorous brushwork in paintings such as Nu et tête d'homme: the paint has been applied across the large expanse of the canvas with an almost swashbuckling energy, be it in the curlicue that makes up the bottom of the knight's ruff or the dense hatching of the woman's body. The paint surface is thrust into greater relief by the contrast between some of the thick brushstrokes and other areas of the canvas that the artist has deliberately left in reserve. It comes as no surprise that this picture was included in the acclaimed recent exhibition of Mosqueteros curated by John Richardson at the Gagosian Gallery, New York, a show which resulted in a reappraisal of these paintings filled with such expressive vitality (see J. Richardson, ed., Picasso: Mosqueteros, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 293).
Picasso's pictures from this period are often considered to be a form of proof of life, a defiant refusal to accept a mortality that felt all the more encroaching when the artist had to undergo surgery in 1965. He had a long convalescence, and was unable to work in oils, especially on a large scale, for quite some time. Indeed, Nu et tête d'homme was one of the largest pictures he had tackled for some time, having created an exploratory first version of the motif on a smaller canvas only the day before. In the interim, he had produced prints and works on paper filled with vibrant characters such as the musketeer, immersing himself and his viewers in a world of derring-do and romance. As was the case with so many of Picasso's male characters, the musketeer was a form of projection, an alter ego, an image of virility during a period when he himself was hampered to some extent by his own limitations. This sense of the musketeer being in part autobiographical is accentuated in Nu et tête d'homme by the dark, piercing stare of the bearded man's eyes, which recall Picasso's own intense gaze. Likewise, the female figure appears to recall his second wife and long-term companion Jacqueline, hinting at his own romantic feelings for her and lending the picture a sense of insight into his private emotional universe in the home they shared, Notre-Dame-de-Vie, at Mougins.
The appearance of the Musketeer in Picasso's pictures owed a great deal to the convalescence of the mid-1960s. Although he told Pierre Daix that the presence of the Mousquetaires was 'all the fault of your old pal Shakespeare,' referring to the fact that the image of a man with a beard and a ruff had appeared in 1964 when he had contributed an image of the Bard to Lettres françaises to commemorate his 400th anniversary, this idea had taken some time to gestate, and indeed required other factors (Picasso, quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, trans. O. Emmet, New York, 1993, p. 355). Richardson has shown that the image of the musketeer - itself a term derived from the Mosquetero of Picasso's native Spain - was derived from Philippe de Champaigne's triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu. Picasso appears to have read Alexandre Dumas' tale, Les trois mousquetaires, a book which painted the Cardinal in a profoundly unflattering light, during this time. More importantly, he seems to have pored over volumes of Rembrandt's etchings (although John Richardson, looking through the Spanish painter's library over a decade after his death, could find only Otto Benesch's catalogue of Rembrant's drawings; see J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 34). Certainly, Jacqueline would tell Picasso's friend, the politician, resistance hero and man of letters André Malraux, that, 'Picasso had discovered those musketeers in an album on Rembrandt during his last illness' (A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1994, p. 86). It is doubtless no coincidence that he was such a prolific maker of prints during this period.
This period marked the highpoint of one of the most important dialogues between Picasso and the Old Masters, his long pas-de-deux with the great Dutch painter. Already, in 1965, Picasso had taken two images by Rembrandt, one of a bather and another of a Woman Making Water, and had collided them together with his own unique style, vision and energy to create his Pisseuse. In Nu et tête d'homme, the legacy of Rembrandt appears clear by comparison with several of his pictures, especially his etchings. For instance, the composition appears to be an inversion of Rembrandt's 1636 Self-Portrait with Saskia, allowing Picasso to hark back to the romantic cocoon of love of his great artistic predecessor. Similarly, the position of the arms of the nude in Picasso's painting recalls Rembrandt's images of Diana at the Bath of 1631 or even the lying figure of Antiope being approached by Jupiter in his 1659 large plate. In Nu et tête d'homme, Picasso has heightened the sense of his references to Rembrandt's etchings by deliberately employing a palette that recalls the printing inks of those works, eschewing colour; in several of his pictures of this period, he would allow this grisaille to dominate, even where he allowed ultramarines and reds to intervene, for instance in his images of the Mousquetaire et nu assis painted a couple of months later.
Several writers have seen Picasso's late dialogue with Rembrandt as a reflection of his own mortality: the Dutch artist was renowned for his frank ability to chart his own inexorable slide into old age, a notion of which Picasso was acutely aware. However, Picasso's works from this period appear also to be defiant refusals to bow to the laws of time: instead, he paints himself young again, immersed in a world of wine-quaffing cavaliers and sensual muses. Nonetheless, Picasso's relationship with Rembrandt during this time may have been a reflection of encroaching mortality. After all, many of Picasso's greatest friends had died during the previous decades, several in recent years; it was perhaps for this reason that, without being able to discuss art with fellow titans such as Henri Matisse or Georges Braque, Picasso entered his rich dialogue with the great artists of the past such as Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, and of course Rembrandt, one of the greats. In a sense, he was measuring himself against these artistic forebears, while also staking his own claim to a place on a pedestal alongside them - after all, he is reported to have claimed that, 'Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt' (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 51). Crucially, Picasso was also using highly-gestural paintings such as Nu et tête d'homme to rock the foundations of art, continuing the upheaval that he had begun with his Blue Period and Cubism more than half a century earlier.
That upheaval was perhaps best demonstrated by his depictions of women. Nu et tête d'homme has an energy about it which recalls the controversial paintings of his now-contemporaries, Jean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning. This had reached a new apogee in Picasso's Pisseuse, which was a searing image of modernity despite its origins in the Seventeenth Century. In Nu et tête d'homme, Picasso has again managed to capture a quality in his depiction of the female nude that is a far cry from the cold, marble-like effigies so often considered beautiful in the canon of art; instead, he has created something raw. Richardson has pointed out that this reflected his beliefs when he was pioneering Cubism with Braque at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The artists, regarding their paintings of women, had what they called the 'armpit test', whereby they sought to capture more than appearance, but to hint at other senses, including smell. 'Is this woman real?' they would ask. 'Could she go out in the street? Is she a woman or a picture?' (Picasso, quoted in Richardson, op. cit., 1988, p. 41).