Hélène Parmelin wrote at length about Picasso’s paintings of 1969, many of which she saw under production at the artist’s studio at Notre-Dame de Vie: “During Picasso’s last years – marked by his Avignon paintings – he often spoke of the obscure direction that his research has taken, a movement closer and closer to reality. The canvas becomes so true that, he says, "one can no longer see the difference between it and reality. It is natural" (H. Parmelin, "Picasso on his Little Terrace" in Picasso Mosqueteros (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2009 p. 288). Picasso’s objective to paint ‘nature’ is in direct opposite to the abstraction and minimalism which were becoming the mainstream for other artists during this same period. 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 - Velazquez and Rembrandt. Picasso had devoted a large portion of his production throughout the 1960s to the reinterpretation of the old masters, an experience in which he reaffirmed his connection to some of the greatest painters in the history of art. 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 also influenced the appearance of these characters.
Towards the end of his life, the image of the musketeer evoked Picasso’s Spanish heritage and his nostalgia for the youthful vigor of his early years. As Marie-Laure Bernadac observes: “If woman was depicted in all her aspects in Picasso’s art, man always appeared in disguise or in a specific role, painter at work or a musketeer. In 1966, a new and final character emerged in Picasso’s iconography and dominated his last period to the point of becoming its emblem. This was the Golden Age gentleman, a half Spanish, half Dutch musketeer dressed in richly adorned clothing complete with ruffs, a cape, boots and a big plumed hat…Picasso seldom depicted himself directly, choosing instead to have thematic characters personify him. For Picasso man was no longer a godlike sculptor at the height of his maturity, nor was he the monstrous Minotaur, symbol of duality; he was a fictitious character, a carnival puppet whose identity and truth lay in masks and signs. Malraux accurately compared these figures to the flat and emblematic personages of the tarot. It was not without humor that Picasso created these characters, whose amorous adventures he chronicled in his etchings. Imagine painting musketeers in 1970! They were ornamental figures whose clothes were a pretext both for the blaze of blood red and golden yellow and for the resurgence of a newly found Spanishness" (B. Léal, C. Piot & M.L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, pp. 457-58).
The iconography of the musketeer was indicative of Picasso's self-awareness in the years before his death. Gone from his paintings were the veiled references to the artist as the victorious gladiator or centaur, as these characters did not reflect the artist's failing stamina and lost youth. The vainglorious musketeer was believed to be a more appropriate incarnation, offering a spectrum of interpretations that occupied the artist until the end of his life.
Picasso's work on this theme began in the mid-1960s with a series of engravings and works on paper that explored this figure and, later, a variety of canvases of the musketeer, festooned in colorful regalia and brandishing a symbol of his virility - a pipe, instrument, weapon, or even a paintbrush. For the present composition, Picasso has rendered his musketeer as a pipe smoker holding his sword and helmet.
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 his adventures as a bon vivant. In the work under discussion, completed in 1969 and only a few years before the artist's death, the musketeer has become an amalgamation of defining 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.
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