Throughout his career Giacometti used his brother Diego as a model for his paintings and sculpture. As Patrick Elliott notes, "In making the portraits and busts, Giacometti's general approach changed little: the sitter would pose on a chair placed on precise markers two to three metres in front of the artist and look him directly in the eye. The position and height of Giacometti's easel was similarly marked in order to maintain the same conditions on each sitting. In nearly all Giacometti's works, whether they be paintings or sculptures, the model is frontally posed and gazes directly forward. For Giacometti, it was the gaze that distinguished the living from the dead. He chose Diego as his principal model partly because he was always there, but more particularly because his features were so familiar and his personality didn't get in the way, 'When he poses for me I don't recognize him.'" (Alberto Giacometti, Edinburgh, 1996, exh. cat., p. 23). As a young art student in 1917-1918 Giacometti had explored the hypnotic effect of gaze in frontal portraiture in his work but for the next two decades he painted only intermittently. He did not begin to focus on his painting until his return to Paris following World War II. He explained this change in an interview with André Parinaud, published in Arts in 1962, by saying, "I looked at the people in the theatre as if I had never seen them before. And at the moment, I suddenly felt the need to paint . . . to know how I was seeing, it became necessary for me to try to paint" (ibid., p. 28).
Tête noire is part of a series of works using Diego as model that Giacometti painted towards the end of his life. These paintings are characterized by their nervous energy, in which the strongly worked head is anchored by a few tenuous lines to the base of the composition. Working with translucent washes of thinned paint and sketching rapidly with graphic line, Giacometti creates some of his most poignant images. Unlike the heads from the previous decade, these pictures included no distracting background references and are notable for their pure psychological force. As Valerie Fletcher writes, "The late images of Diego, appropriately called the Black Head paintings, have a stark, disturbing quality. They present an archetypal vision of a gaunt, staring head that emerges with nightmarish intensity from a dark-gray background. Devoid of descriptive details, Diego's visage served as a vehicle for Alberto's intuition of human psyche, prey to an indefinable and frightening emotion, perhaps apprehensive of an inevitable and increasingly imminent death. These spectres were the most somber extreme of Giacometti's vision of reality . . . In his late paintings, Giacometti conveyed his intimation of an irreducible, essential being beyond the vagaries of transitory appearances. In his quest to portray certain visual perceptions, he succeeded in revealing an ultimate reality that became his testament" (ibid., p. 30).
Answering criticism of these late paintings, Giacometti retorted, "They reproach me as being a painter of only gray . . . Good. Isn't gray also a color? Velazquez, Manet. Yes, and also Braque and Bonnard--and many others. I am not alone with my gray! Yes I do see everything in gray, in gray there is present all the colors that I sense and that I want to express. Why then do I have to employ other colors?" (quoted in Madrid, exh. cat., op. cit, p. 612).