Bateliers nu depicts two muscular, bearded men in a boat at sea; one of them is seated, and the other stands with both hands gripping a long oar. The drawing is related to a group of Blue Period works that Picasso made in 1902 and 1903 depicting impoverished families at the seaside, the ultimate source for which are the anguished fisherfolk in Puvis de Chavannes's Le pauvre pêcheur, 1881 and La famille du pêcheur, 1887 (see Lot 15). The boat in the present drawing is a small, wooden fisherman's craft of the same type that appears in Puvis's paintings. This kind of boat is also found in the background at least three other works by Picasso from this period: a large oil of a mother cradling an infant (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 478), an oil sketch of a woman and child bidding farewell to a fisherman (Daix no. VII.19), and a drawing on a Junyer Vidal business card of a female figure huddled at the edge of the ocean (Z., vol. 1, no. 151). Moreover, in a letter to Max Jacob dated August 1903, Picasso announced that he was "thinking of doing a painting of three meters, sailors on a small boat," a project that apparently was never executed (quoted in S. Lemoine, Toward Modern Art: From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2002, p. 148).
Another possible source for the present drawing is the great fresco cycle that Puvis de Chavannes painted for the Panthéon in Paris, depicting scenes from the life of Saint Geneviève. The paintings were completed in 1898, just two years before Picasso made his first trip to the French capital, and their pervasive blue tonality has often been cited as an important source for Picasso's Blue Period. In late 1902, during his third trip to Paris, Picasso made a hasty pen sketch of a scene from the fresco of an old woman dying of hunger, which he inscribed "De Puvis en el Panteon" (Museu Picasso, Barcelona; see J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. I, p. 256). He also copied a figure of a man carrying a heavy sack, which was reproduced to illustrate the art of Puvis in an article that Carles Junyer Vidal wrote for the newspaper El Liberal in August 1903 (Z., vol. 6, no. 190). In Puvis's painting, the man with a sack is part of a group of bearded figures who hoist bags of provisions for hungry Parisians off a small boat, which has a curved prow that closely resembles the one in the present drawing. Although the drawing does not copy a specific vignette from the fresco, the burly musculature of the two men and their heroic nudity (a marked contrast with the gaunt physique and tattered clothing of the Blue Period seaside figures) suggest that Picasso may have had the Panthéon cycle in mind when he drew the present scene. This connection is reinforced by another drawing on a Junyer Vidal business card, which is closely related to Bateliers nu and was most likely drawn at the same time (Z., vol. 1, no. 141). This scene also features two men with a small boat, but the boat is now docked, and one of the figures has stepped onto dry land, a heavy sack slung over his shoulder.