The Last Great Paintings by Pablo Picasso
I n 1968 Picasso executed a series of large canvases depicting sword-brandishing musketeers. One of the great subjects of the artist's late oeuvre, the musketeer was one of the various archetypes that populated his paintings. In choosing the iconography shared by Old Master painters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez, Picasso was, at the end of his career, consciously aligning himself with the greatest artists of the Western canon.
Picasso's work on this theme began in the mid-1960s with a series of engravings and works on paper, and later a variety of canvases of the musketeer, decorated in colorful regalia and donning a symbol of his virility – a pipe, instrument, weapon, or even a paintbrush. As Picasso developed this series during the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the musketeer became a multi-dimensional figure, exhibiting a range of personalities including card players, musicians and pipe smokers, illustrating the artist's own adventures as a bon vivant.
For the above composition, Picasso has rendered his musketeer as a pipe smoker – a motif that dates back to some of the artist’s compositions from the early twentieth century and recurs in the greatest examples of the musketeers series – becoming an amalgamation of symbols. Unlike earlier versions of this subject in which the artist is careful to render the likeness of the figure through costume and presentation, the present work is identifiable as part of the musketeer series only by particular attributes. Nevertheless, the figure is unquestionably a man of stature, depicted here in the dignified manner of classical portraiture.
For Picasso, the musketeer signified the golden age of painting, and allowed him to escape the limitations of contemporary subject matter and explore the spirit of a past age. Here was a character who embodied the courtly mannerisms of the Renaissance gentleman, and Picasso's rendering of this image was also his tribute to the work of two painters he had adored throughout his life – Velásquez and Rembrandt. The musketeer series was a continuation of this interest and began, according to his wife Jacqueline Roque, "when Picasso started to study Rembrandt," but his appreciation of other great figures of the Renaissance, including Shakespeare, also influenced the appearance of these characters. His interest in Rembrandt’s work, however, was longstanding.
No less of an influence on his artwork during his later years were works by Velázquez. In examining Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas, which Picasso would devote numerous canvases to, the similarities in the artist's self-portrait within this massive canvas and the attributes of the musketeer in Mousquetaire à la pipe are striking.
The works of Picasso’s last twenty years are increasingly seen as a fitting culmination to the career of the twentieth century's greatest artist. These late portraits actually represent a psychological projection of a complex identity, illustrating the blend of influences and contrary personas that made up Picasso’s mental backdrop. As Picasso commented in his last decade: “I have less and less time and I have more and more to say.”