During the final six years of his life, from 1967 until 1973, no character appeared in Picasso's art more frequently than the swashbuckling, seventeenth-century mousquetaire. The impetus for the emergence of this dashing and rakish figure, with his elegant beard and moustache, long wavy hair, and ruffled collar, may be traced to early 1966, when the artist was undergoing a long convalescence from surgery at his home in Mougins. Unable to work, he passed the time by reading or re-reading many classics, including Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, a book that John Richardson claims the artist knew by heart. He also pored over the plays of Shakespeare during this period, and when Pierre Daix asked him about the sudden appearance of so many mousquetaires in his work, he replied, "It's all the fault of your old pal Shakespeare" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 355). The musketeer represents the last in a lengthy line of artist-surrogates who populate Picasso's work. Now in his mid-eighties, his vaunted sexual powers on the wane and his life increasingly circumscribed within the walls of his villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Picasso transformed himself into this worldly, adventurous, and virile nobleman, affirming his ability, through wit and skill, to remain master of his fate during this final stage of his long life.
Although the irrepressible proliferation of musketeers in Picasso's work did not begin until the spring of 1967, the seventeenth century cavalier was already a stock character in his late artist and model paintings well before that. This figure first appeared in one of the very earliest canvases in the artist and model series, dated 13-14 March 1963, which Picasso told his friend Hélène Parmelin represented Rembrandt and Saskia (Zervos, vol. 23, no. 171); he certainly had in mind a youthful self-portrait in which the Dutch master, foppishly attired in a plumed hat, frolics with his wife on his lap. By this time, Picasso had entered into a close and extended study of Rembrandt. He increasingly identified with the Dutch artist, who likewise had a long career and was also fond of inserting himself, in one guise or another, into his paintings. "Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt," he once claimed (quoted in F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, p. 51).
The artist and model series thus set the stage for the final act in Picasso's art, the musketeers. Following Picasso's death, when André Malraux asked Jacqueline about the origins of this last great flowering of painterly creativity, she recalled, ‘They came to Pablo when he'd gone back to studying Rembrandt’ (quoted in Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, exh. cat., New York, 2010, p. 252). Inspired by his re-reading of Dumas's classic, Picasso drew figures in seventeenth-century costume in a carnet that he used in March-April 1966, including a depiction of a cavalier-peintre in front of his model, and he then introduced the musketeer theme in two drawings done that December (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 257-258). In these two works, the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to the eyes of the artist, that intense gaze that always commanded attention, any time Picasso walked in a room of people. In Tête, Picasso’s captivating mirada fuerte is even more obvious: drawn in a thick, black line, it is, together with the artist’s hand and brush, the utmost focus of this large, powerful self-portrait.