In the early 1960s Picasso had been fond of depicting himself in the figure of a brawny Mediterranean fisherman, either young or old, with a tousled beard and in a striped sailor's vest. However, in early 1966, while convalescing in his home in Mougins from surgery, Picasso reread Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. Within a short time a new character entered Picasso's repertory of artist-surrogates--the musketeer, or more generally, the 17th century cavalier, the rakish nobleman skilled with the sword, daring in his romantic exploits, and in his tastes and appetites a worldly gentleman who enjoyed all that life had to offer. The adventurous and manly musketeer now replaced the fisherman as the artist's primary choice persona. Now in his mid-80s, able to travel only locally, and with his vaunted sexual powers finally on the wane, Picasso transformed himself into the brave, adventurous and virile musketeer, wearing an elegant little curled mustache and long wavy hair, and clad in a doublet and ruffled collar, as seen here. This would be the mask he would hold up most frequently to the world during the remaining years of his life.
It may seem odd that, in the tumult and unrest of the late 1960s, the world's greatest living artist should retreat into a world of "backward-looking romantics and nostalgic dreamers" (M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 82). There is a modern sense of irony in Picasso's view of his musketeers. He treated them in a manner that is invariably comic and mock-heroic; these soldiers of derring-do are often ridiculous and overblown in their grandiose self-confidence. There is an element of protest as well--Picasso was sympathetic to the emerging youth counter-culture and its protest against staid conformism in social life. The artist lamented the growing absence of a recklessly individual spirit, the man of purposeful ideals who felt the spur to action. Picasso's appropriation of the musketeer image was an attempt to reclaim a heroic posture, the stance of the world-transforming genius that he had been in his youth, and, in a more private sense, to re-affirm his ability, through wit and skill, to remain master of his destiny--as best he might--in this final stage of his long life.
The first appearance of the 17th century cavalier in Picasso's late work occurred in one of his artist and model paintings, dated 13-14 March 1963, which Picasso revealed to his friend Hélène Parmelin as being "Rembrandt and Saskia." It was recorded under this title in the Zervos catalogue (vol. 23, no. 171; fig. 1). Picasso had in mind a similarly titled work by Rembrandt, in which the young Dutch artist, wearing a stylish hat and sword, frolics with his wife Saskia (fig. 2). Picasso had entered into an intense 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. Picasso was especially interested in Rembrandt's drawings and etchings, the quality and variety of which he sought to emulate in his own works in these media. John Richardson found a set of the six-volume catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings by Otto Benesch in Picasso's library in 1986.
Then, several years later, inspired by his reading of Dumas' The Three Musketeers, Picasso drew figures in 17th century costume a carnet that he used in March-April 1966. Picasso then introduced the musketeer theme in two drawings done in December 1966 (Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 257-258). He commenced a series of large ink wash bust-length portraits of musketeers later that month (Zervos, vol. 27, nos. 448-454). The first oil painting of this subject, done on 20 February 1967, again showed the cavalier as a painter, (Zervos, vol. 25, no. 280). The series was now underway, and included seated musketeers, heads and busts.
The musketeer paintings were the final major series of variations on a theme that Picasso undertook in the late phase of his work. The musketeer subject provided an opportunity to investigate two aspects of art-making that were foremost among Picasso's concerns during these final years: tradition and process. The musketeers served a means through which Picasso could engage the great artists of the past whom he admired, allowing him to measure the achievement of his own life's work within the continuity and traditions of European painting. Having emerged from his study of Rembrandt, the musketeer theme also provided an avenue to further treating Velázquez, his greatest love among all painters (fig. 3), as well as to the entirety of the achievement of the Siglo de Oro in Spanish painting. These sources encouraged the artist to take stock of his Spanishness, the role of his native heritage in his work, and his own position within this distinguished tradition.
Moreover, the musketeers subject perfectly suited Picasso's work habits at this time. The artist was drawn to serial procedure, following an idea from one painting to the next, as an effective means of examining, assimilating and re-interpreting a subject, style or manner. Indeed, Picasso had become increasingly engaged in painting as "process", in which the act of painting, not the completed painting, was a sufficient end in itself. Picasso described how he took special pleasure in the "movement of the painting, the dramatic effort from one vision to the next, even if the effort is not carried through. I have reached the stage where the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself" (quoted in K. Gallwitz, Picasso Laureatus, Paris, 1971, p. 166). In 1956 Picasso told Alexander Liberman, the editor of Vogue magazine, that "Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search incessantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. That is why I number them. It's an experiment in time" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 72).
The musketeer series was indeed an "experiment in time," and in more than one sense. It constituted a brilliant exercise in sequential imaging, as Picasso described above. Moreover, this series was also a "journey into time," one that followed a route from Picasso's Mougins studio in the late twentieth century to Dumas' novel written in the mid-nineteeth, and then three centuries further into the past to the Baroque era of Rembrandt and Vel/aazquez. As Picasso became very old and reclusive, and the real world of physical delight diminished with age, an inner world, without boundaries of time or place, evolved in its stead. Picasso constructed a veritable musée imaginaire, an edifice that he maintained in his own mind of which he was artificer, arbiter and curator, that contained the genius of many centuries, as well as his own.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt et Saskia, 13-14 March 1963. Private collection. BARCODE 20627676
(fig. 2) Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt and Saskia, circa 1635. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. BARCODE 20627669
(fig. 3) Diego de Silva Velázquez, Self-portrait (detail from Las meninas), 1656. Museo del Prado, Madrid. BARCODE 20627652