From late September until 23rd October 1970, when he painted his last matador work following a bullfight at Fréjus, Picasso returned to the celebrated theme of the matador for a final time (fig. 1). For the elderly artist, the matador was one of a cast of characters that were a means of projecting different aspects of his identity. In Picasso's late paintings the subject 'always plays a part, or wears a disguise: as a painter at work or as a matador-musketeer [...] Picasso's confrontation with the human face, which makes him into the great portrait-painter of the twentieth century, brings him back to a confrontation with himself, the painter, young or old' (M.-L. Bernadac, in Late Picasso (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, pp. 81-83). These portraits of the various archetypes that populated Picasso's personal mythology were part of a late flowering, a final synthesis which merged the artist's personal history with the cultural heritage of the Western artistic tradition, and developed a direct and spontaneous style that celebrated the act of artistic creation.
Despite leaving Spain to live in Paris in his youth, Picasso retained a sense of Spanish identity until the very end of his life. He grew up watching bullfights in Malaga, and when he wished to draw attention to his heritage, such as during the Spanish Civil War for his work Guernica, he turned to the imagery of the bullfight. The return to the subject in the present work illustrates how the aging artist dwelt on his earliest memories and the pantheon of Old Master painters for inspiration in his late art, in particular the figure of Rembrandt. Personal memories become intertwined with the art and artists that made up his artistic heritage, and in this final series of matador portraits the ghost of Goya is strongly present. Picasso's matadors are dressed in the style of figures from Goya's time (fig. 2) and represent a final tribute to La Corrida, the dance of life and death that symbolised the extremes of the Spanish temperament, and to the heroic figure of the matador who embodied Picasso's own Andalusian machismo.
The recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Picasso: Challenging the Past, is part of an ongoing reassessment of Picasso's late œuvre, and the works of the last twenty years of Picasso's life are increasingly seen as a fitting culmination to the career of the 20th century's greatest artist. At this stage of his career, Picasso was consciously aligning himself with the great masters of Western art and his numerous interpretations of earlier masterpieces were an attempt to situate his own artistic achievement in relation to those of his predecessors. His late portraits represent a psychological projection of a complex and multifaceted identity, and through numerous symbolic references to previous artists provide a visual illustration of the amalgamation of influences and personas that made up his iconography. As Simonetta Fraquelli commented in the exhibition catalogue, 'In an era when nonfigurative art prevailing over figurative art and a linear progression of 'style' was considered more relevant than emotion and subject, it was customary for many younger artists and art critics to think of late Picasso as lesser Picasso. However, the extensive re-evaluation of his late work since his death has highlighted its undiminished power and originality. His capacity for emotional depth and painterly freedom in his late painting, together with his wide ranging engagement with the imagery of the great paintings of the past, was to have a lasting influence on the development of neoexpressionist art from the early 1980s onwards' (S. Fraquelli, 'Looking at the Past to Defy the Present: Picasso's Painting 1946-1973' in Picasso: Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 146).
Fig. 1, Pablo Picasso, Le Matador au cigare, 14th October 1970, oil on canvas, Musée Picasso, Paris
Fig. 2, Francisco de Goya, The Matador Pedro Romero, circa 1795-97, oil on canvas, The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Fig. 3, A view of the Picasso exhibition at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, 1973, showing the present work, lower left
Oil on canvas
Avignon, Palais des Papes, Picasso 1970-1972, 1973, no. 7, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Torero)
Miami, Center for the Fine Arts, Picasso at Work at Home: Selections from the Marina Picasso Collection, 1985-86, no. 147, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Charlotte, North Carolina, Jerald Melberg Gallery, Inc., Picasso in Charlotte (Selections from the Marina Picasso Collection), 1986, no. 45
130 by 97cm. 51 1/8 by 38 1/8 in.
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1970, Paris, 1977, vol. 32, no. 270, illustrated pl. 87
Le Dernier Picasso, 1953-1973 (exhibition catalogue), Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1988, illustrated in a photograph of the exhibition at Avignon p. 136
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. The Final Years, 1970-1973, San Francisco, 2004, no. 70-301, illustrated p. 87
Marina Picasso (granddaughter of the artist; by descent)
Estate of William H. Van Every, Jr. (sold: Sotheby's, New York, 11th November 1988, lot 69)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner