The figure of the musketeer, or mousquetaire, first appeared in Picasso’s work toward the end of 1966, just months before he painted Mousquetaire et nu assis. While recovering from surgery at his home in Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, France, he immersed himself in literature, devouring plays by Shakespeare and novels by Balzac, Dickens and Dumas. When Picasso began painting again in the spring of 1967, it was the swashbuckling characters from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers who leapt from the page and into a new life on the canvas.
The figure of the musketeer had a long history in visual art, too, represented in works by Hals, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. In referencing the revered artists of the past, Picasso was measuring himself against them, while asserting that he belonged in this lineage of great masters.
‘Why did Picasso lock horns with one great painter after another?’ asked John Richardson in a 1984 article for The New York Review of Books. ‘Was it a trial of strength — arm wrestling? Was it out of admiration or mockery, irony or homage, Oedipal rivalry or Spanish chauvinism? Each case was different, but there is always an element of identification, an element of cannibalism involved — two elements that, as Freud pointed out, are part of the same process. Indeed Freud described the process of identification as “psychic cannibalism”. You identified with someone; you cannibalised them; you assumed their powers. How accurately this described what Picasso was up to in his last years.’
More than any other in this pantheon of artistic heroes, it was the work of Rembrandt that Picasso most identified with, or ‘cannibalised’, in his creation of the musketeer. The speed with which he now painted, however, was reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. ‘When things were going well,’ recalled Jacqueline, ‘he would come down from the studio saying, “They’re coming! They’re still coming”.’
Above all, it is desire that radiates from Picasso’s late work: both sexual desire and the desire to paint without restraint, thought or impairment. This desire, and the thirst for life of an artist all too aware of his advancing age, charges Mousquetaire et nu assis with its vital, immediate power.