Painted on 13 April 1967, Nu assis et joueur de flûte is an intriguing variation of one of Picasso's most successful themes, the artist and the model. Here, though, Picasso has replaced the figure of the painter, which was a form of self-portrait, with that of a musician, thereby inviting the viewer into a lyrical and bucolic world of music and play. This romantic, even languorous scene shows a charmed life, as the naked woman relaxes while listening to the music being played for her. The romantic aspects of this scene are augmented by the visual similarity between the woman and Picasso's then wife, Jacqueline, implying that, in looking at this picture, we are being summoned into the private world of the artist himself, albeit a world of fantasy.
During the 1960s, the theme of the artist and his model was one that Picasso had explored in a number of paintings; in those works where the painter has been substituted with a musician, the dynamic is changed. The woman is no longer a model, but instead some form of erotic nymph, some earthy character from Picasso's own personal mythology, the object of praise and serenades. Picasso had developed an entire coterie of characters who appeared in his various pictures, often emerging from the pages of Alexandre Dumas, from the paintings of Rembrandt and from the silver screen. Picasso was merging many of these influences, creating pictures like Nu assis et joueur de flûte that are at once timeless and bracingly contemporary. These show him keeping a foot in the door of the history of art, as he sometimes reverently and sometimes iconoclastically revisited and re-envisaged the works of his artistic forebears.
This is exemplified by the debt that Nu assis et joueur de flûte appears to pay to Titian and his reclining nudes listening to players of the organ or the lute, as well as to Edouard Manet and in particular Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1862-63; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Picasso's relationship with the great painters of yore was often complex. He was fanatical in his enthusiasm for predecessors such as Velasquez, Rembrandt, Ingres and Manet, and would create works that were inspired either directly or tangentially by them. Especially following the death of Henri Matisse, the other great titan of painting of the period, Picasso communed with the almost ancestral spirits of these older artists, paradoxically chipping away at their own pedestals while placing himself on a par with them, reflecting on his own position within the canon of art history.
The example of Manet was crucial to Picasso in his treatment of women in his pictures. Just as Manet's Olympia had outraged so much of the establishment with its frank and earthy depiction of the female nude, so Picasso too sought a means of conveying more in his paintings of women than had hitherto been captured. This was a long-standing aim: even as they pioneered Cubism at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, he and Braque used to submit their pictures to a sort of 'armpit test,' following Picasso's questions about the veracity of painting: 'Is this woman real?' he had asked. 'Could she go out in the street? Is she a woman or a picture?' (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 41). In Nu assis et joueur de flûte, as in those earlier works, he has deliberately avoided any sugar-coated notion of woman as a subject, instead creating an image that is filled with vitality and sexuality. This can be seen in itself as a reaction to the legacy of his late friend and rival, Matisse. It was in part in tribute to Matisse that Picasso explored the subject of the naked woman so often, saying that, 'When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me as a legacy' (Pablo Picasso, quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model, pp. 49-94, loc. cit., 1988, p. 55).
Intriguingly, the seemingly bucolic idyll of Nu assis et joueur de flûte's subject matter is in stark contrast to the manner of execution. This picture bears all the hallmarks of its own creation. Picasso's brushwork is in fierce evidence: he has deliberately created a range of contrasts between the areas of primed canvas that are visible and the impasto of some of the more vigorously applied brushstrokes. This canvas has become a record of the artist's own movements with the brush as he has frenetically applied paint to the surface. On the one hand, this reflects Picasso's own passion, be it for painting, for the subject, for music or for romance; and on the other hand, it reflects his ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality, a notion that is possibly highlighted in Nu assis et joueur de flûte by the slightly skull-like depiction of the flutist/artist's head. By this time, many of Picasso's friends from over the years had died, not least Matisse. Picasso showed typical defiance when, instead of calming down and approaching some form of retirement, he painted with renewed vim and energy, adding an existential dimension to this pastoral image.
Intriguingly, Picasso's own exuberance and enthusiasm in painting Nu assis et joueur de flûte results in a lyrical, even playful atmosphere that thrives on the strange union between the content and the manner of execution. Rather than become some elder statesman of art, Picasso remained an iconoclast; indeed, some of his late works can be seen almost as taunts to his old faithful supporters, challenges designed to keep them on their toes. The man who changed the course of painting in the Twentieth Century still had an appetite for shock. And he still had an appetite for innovation: while he almost never espoused full abstraction, he was nonetheless aware of many of the developments in the Post-War avant-garde; it would appear, then, as no coincidence that Picasso was, during the 1960s, exploring the gestural expressiveness of painting in a way that he had never previously done. Picasso was appropriating some of the advances of Abstract Expressionism and the Informel, lending his paintings such as Nu assis et joueur de flûte a contemporary currency and a contemporary energy.