Baigneur et baigneuses belongs to the celebrated group of works on the subject of bathers on the beach, that Picasso executed during the early 1920s. Using the narrative of the beach, he depicted his bathers playing in the sand, swimming, or basking in the sun - familiar activities from the summers that he spent in the 1920s on the French Riviera (fig. 1) with his friends Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gerald and Sara Murphy. These pictures, though, were more than mementos of favourite summer pastimes, and proved how Picasso could radically reinvent himself as an artist. A dramatic departure from the highly abstract Cubist compositions that had occupied him a decade earlier, these pictures of bathers capitalised on the clarity of form and were indebted to the influence of the old masters and best French draughtsmen of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Picasso's approach was also heavily indebted to Cézanne's depictions of bathers (fig. 2), particularly evident in the present work, where the solidity of the figures and the distortion of perspective is reminiscent of the post-Impressionist artist's own manipulations of form and space at the end of the 19th century. The influence of the sculptor Aristide Maillol can also be seen in these compositions; the bathers depicted in this picture bear a striking resemblance to the classicised, allegorical figures that Maillol executed at the beginning of the 1900s (fig. 3). Perhaps most importantly, Picasso's bathers exhibited his great strength as a draughtsman and his ability to adapt the Classical Greek physical ideal to the modern age. This classical association aligned Picasso with the celebrated artists of the past, and allowed the most avant-garde artist of the 20th century to take his place among the most influential figures in the history of Western art.
Although Christian Zervos stated in his catalogue raisonné on Picasso that Baigneur et baigneuses was completed in 1920, Josep Palau I Fabre has made a convincing argument that dates this work to February 1921. His revised dating is based on related drawings that Picasso completed at this time that feature the figures of the man and two women in various positions on the beach. Palau I Fabre has called this series the 'petrified beach scenes' on account of the male figure's stone-like stance. The first of these works is a drawing from 26th February 1921 in which a man with the same pose stands between two seated women (fig. 4). The women are seated in similar poses in both this drawing and the present work, but Picasso switches their placement in the painting. The rearrangement shows his interest in the figures' spatial relationship and his attempt to achieve a particular type of balance among them.
In the 2003 exhibition catalogue on Picasso's Neo-Classical works, John Richardson discussed the artist's affinity for the classical tradition and its impact on his art. He wrote the following about Baigneur et baigneuses: 'The wonderful little painting, Bathers, of three figures on a beach (the man in the center is taken more or less straight from Cézanne) shows how Picasso had found a modern way of dealing with Kenneth Clark's dusty precept that "the nude remains our chief link with the classic discipline.' Picasso's sunbathers - chatting, reading, sleeping, swimming - partake of both high and low, and to that extent give a new twist to the age-old subject of the nude in art. These paintings are basically about pleasure, about enjoying the dolce far niente of a sunny day on the Mediterranean beach. However, just as Picasso had used the same interchangeable still-life objects - guitars, fruit dishes, packets of tobacco - over and over again in his Cubist exercises, he uses the same interchangeable human equivalents - a clone-like host of Junos and Antinouses - in his Classical exercises. And figures prove just as useful as an object in his bid to demonstrate that Cubism and Classicism are the recto and verso of each other 'Basically the same thing,' as Picasso never tired of saying. "How bored people would be if I always said the same thing in the same voice"' (J. Richardson, Picasso: The Classical Period (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 15-16).
Oil on canvas
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings from Previous Internationals, 1958-59, no. 67
New York, C&M Fine Arts, Picasso: The Classical Period, 2003
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art & Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Picasso and American Art, 2006-07, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (as dating from 1921)
54 by 81cm. 21 1/4 by 31 7/8 in.
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso. OEuvres de 1920 à 1922, Paris, 1942, vol. 4, no. 208, illustrated pl. 71 (as dating from 1920)
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Neoclassicism I, 1920-1921, San Francisco, 1995, no. 20-440, illustrated p. 137 (as dating from 1920)
Josep Palau I Fabre, Picasso: From the Ballets to Drama (1917-1926), Cologne, 1999, no. 978, illustrated p. 260 (titled Man Between Two Women on the Beach and as dating from 1921)
Picasso et les femmes (exhibition catalogue), Kunstsammlungen, Chemnitz, 2002-03, illustrated p. 155 (as dating from 1920)
Picasso, Badende (exhibition catalogue), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 2005, fig. 18, illustrated p. 63 (as dating from 1920)
Paul Rosenberg, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York
G. David Thompson, Pittsburgh (acquired from the above in September 1956)
Hester Diamond, USA (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004