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'Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt' (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 51).
Painted across the span of several days in March 1967, Le peintre combines two of Pablo Picasso's favourite themes: the painter and the musketeer. The former theme was one that had appeared throughout Picasso's career while the latter was a relative novelty, having only come to the fore the previous year. Crucially, both subjects allowed Picasso to create tangential self-portraits while also deconstructing and exploring the entire nature of painting.
Incredibly, considering the prominence of Picasso's pictures of musketeers and cavaliers, it was really only in the mid-1960s that he turned to the theme of the seventeenth-century gentleman as a standalone figure, despite having already featured in such works as the series of reprisals of Diego Velasquez's Las meninas from the Prado, Madrid. The swashbuckling characters such as Le peintre sprang as if from nowhere to the forefront of Picasso's menagerie of characters, often shown with swords, with paintbrushes, with wine or with women, and sometimes a combination thereof. In Le peintre, the viewer cannot help but assume that somewhere, just on the other side of the easel, a beautiful, naked model is doubtless waiting to be depicted, even though the artist's pose in this picture also recalls self-portraits painted in front of mirrors. Picasso, despite his advancing years, was projecting himself into a world of theatrical youth and virility, encouraged by the love and comfort provided by his wife, Jacqueline Roque, whom he had married just over half a decade earlier and who cared for him constantly during this period, sheltering him from many of the rigours and challenges of the outside world.
In Le peintre, the autobiographical aspect of the picture is emphasised by the focus on the eyes, which recall Picasso's own, especially in his stylised representations of his own features. Since the 1930s, Picasso had often presented the subject of the artist as a bearded figure in many quasi-mythological scenes, yet clearly identified with him directly. In the pictures from the post-War period, when Picasso was a household name and his image was instantly recognisable to millions of people in the Western world, he was able to reconfigure his own features to new purposes, partly playing with his endemic place in current culture and partly subverting it with a variety of disguises and costumes, all worn within the context of the realm of his imagination. This was a continuation of a theme that had begun in his earlier years, when he had explored his self-portraiture, and by extension his self-presentation, in a number of ways, for instance depicting himself wearing an eighteenth-century wig, or emaciated after illness, or with the luminous intensity of a zealot-artist. In this way, Picasso was able to immerse himself in a number of different worlds and roles, exploring the entire mythos of the painter. This was a process that came to the fore all the more during the mid-1960s, when he was living a life of increasing isolation from the outside world, feeling besieged by fans and photographers alike, and all the more so after an operation he underwent in 1965 which had resulted in a prolonged convalescence. Increasingly, he turned inwards to the fertile plains of his mind for his subject matter and romantic imagery.
For Picasso, the past provided rich plunder with which to attack painting in a new and fresh manner. Adopting the visual language of the Old Masters and twisting it to his own vigorous purposes, he was able to demonstrate the extent of his frontal assault on the works of his artistic predecessors. On the one hand, he was placing himself on a pedestal alongside such figures as Rembrandt and Velasquez, both of whom are recalled in Le peintre; on the other, he was challenging their hegemony and indeed deliberately dragging them through an almost demeaning transformation. Picasso was bringing an iconoclastic verve to his reincarnations of that charmed universe, deliberately using the world of ruffs and cuffs as a foil for his expressionistic explorations of art and of movement. His paintings from this time are a force of life that has been poured onto the canvas in a flow, the chart of a moving, shifting thought at a particular moment in time (hence the increasing precision with which he dated works such as Le peintre). Filled with youthful vigour, they form a contrast with his predecessors, even those who themselves used bold brushwork such as Rembrandt, Hals and Velasquez. Looking at Le peintre, it becomes clear that Picasso was turning the art of the past upon the art of the present, using the visual language of the obsolete to demonstrate his own artistic gymnastics against a backdrop of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism.
Indeed, Picasso during this time was using his mining of themes of noble cavaliers and the like to enact a complex succession of contrasts. Having spent some time living in the impressive surroundings of the Château de Vauvenargues before moving to his villa in Mougins, where Le peintre was painted, Picasso appears to have revelled in his life of an incongruous seigneurial 'beach bum', wandering around in T-shirts or topless within those ancient castle walls (K. Varnedoe, 'Picasso's Self-Portraits', pp. 110-79, W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, pp. 165-66). Even in this, he retained his ability to be provocative.
In the pictures such as Le peintre, which so gleefully take their cues from the Seventeenth Century, the worlds of the musketeer and the artist clearly overlapped. A picture now in the Ludwig Collection which was painted the day after Le peintre was completed makes this confluence of themes particularly apparent: showing a Mousquetaire assis, the reverse has been inscribed by the artist with the fictitious compilation name, trotting across the countries and through the Seventeenth Century, 'Domenico Theotocopulos van Riyn da Silva [sic]'. Similarly, a few months after Le peintre was completed, Picasso created Le couple. Now in the Kunstmuseum Basel, this was a large-scale picture which appeared to be his own private homage to and variation upon Rembrandt's Self-Portrait with Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son of circa 1635, now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. In each of these, the main protagonist is shown with similar accoutrements of days of yore, be it in the ruffs, the large floppy hats or the distinctive facial hair so pertly sported in Le peintre. Looking at Le peintre, the viewer feels that a character from Rembrandt's universe has come to life - it comes as little surprise to hear that Picasso used to project the Night Watch on a wall in his studio, allowing its many hatted, bearded, strutting musketeer-like characters to appear glowing and life-sized (J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 34).
When Picasso had painted Le couple, he claimed to his friend and biographer Pierre Daix that he had only afterwards seen the similarity between his own work and Rembrandt's image of himself frolicking with Saskia. 'His brain functioned in precisely that sequence: doing a picture first, then analysing it,' Daix explained, before discussing the way that the various memories of the older picture had percolated through into Le couple, ensuring that, even if the intention was subconscious, it was nonetheless intention which drove the composition (P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, trans. O. Emmet, New York, 1993, p. 358). Similarly, Le peintre appears to blend together a number of influences from paintings and other areas of life. The pose recalls El Greco's portrait of his son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos, dating from the very beginning of the Seventeenth Century. Jorge, also a painter, is shown with his palette and a raised brush - and similar facial hair. Picasso clearly knew this picture well, having been fascinated by El Greco since his late teens, when the Old Master painter was virtually unknown to all except a small number of avant garde artists and critics. Back then, he identified with him enough to have inscribed a drawing with the words 'Yo El Greco, yo Greco' (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: Volume I: 1881-1906, London, 1991, pp. 290-91). Later, he had specifically created his own reincarnation of El Greco's portrait of his son in 1950 in a work now in the Rosengart Collection. At the same time, the appearance of Le peintre recalls some of the portraits of Philippe de Champaigne, one of the great chroniclers of the Seventeenth Century court in France, for instance his image of Léon Bouthillier, Comte de Chavigny, which Picasso may have seen in Versailles.
Looking at Champaigne, there are also echoes of his portraits of Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu. The latter is particularly apt as he is so intrinsically linked to the theme of Alexandre Dumas' epic, Les trois mousquetaires. Picasso is believed to have known this novel intimately. Indeed, John Richardson has said that in addition to knowing the novel, as a cinephile he almost certainly saw Bernard Borderie's 1961 film adaptations (indeed, in one of the publicity shots for Les trois mousquetaires: La vengeance de Milady, the actor Gérard Barray is shown to have strong similarities in dress and grooming to the protagonist in Le peintre). This demonstrates the incredible versatility of Picasso and his willingness to mix high and low, often with a rich overtone of provocation, as was demonstrated in Le peintre and in his lifestyle in Vauvenargues alike. At the same time, it reveals his openness to outside stimulation, his continued ability to absorb and process the world visually, his sheer hunger for life. Looking at the paint surface of Le peintre, that hunger is clearly in evidence: Picasso is using his vibrant, expressionistic brushstrokes to banish any sense of impending mortality, instead channelling a machismo that is perhaps at odds with his age. This picture, then, combines the defiant proof of life from the artist with an infectious joie de vivre.