In the present drawing, Picasso has created a timeless aura of absolute serenity and repose. While making manifold allusions to the grand classical tradition in painting, he has personalized this subject with his most consummate handling of line, in which the diverse figural forms have been rendered with perfect precision and clarity, producing on the sheet a complex and delicately balanced filigree of arabesque and open space.
Picasso had been making classical drawings since 1914, while simultaneously working in the newly clarified forms of synthetic Cubism. This strange and unexpected stylistic turn proved to be a major catalyst in the rappel à l'ordre--the 'call to order'--by which Jean Cocteau, in the wake of the First World War, summoned artists to emphasize classical, humanist values, which he thought should be expressed through the reclamation of traditional forms in European art. A renewed interest in the figure was central to this program. The ultimate destination, at which Picasso arrived first and then defined for all subsequent comers, was the creation of a idyllic world, an Arcadia that existed in our universal mythic memory, outside of real time and space, and as removed as one could get from the bustle and mutability of modern urban living.
Quatres nus recalls the Arcadian glow of Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre (Coll. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania), his famous Fauve painting shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1906, to which Picasso had frequent access in Gertrude Stein's collection. Picasso first saw Ingres' Le bain turc, 1859-1862, at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 and thereafter in the Louvre. He admired Ingres' skill at grouping female figures, as well as the linear mastery of his drawings. Renoir's buxom late nudes also appealed to Picasso. The flatness of the composition in this drawing points to Picasso's interest in the Roman wall paintings and sculptural reliefs that he saw during his trip to Italy in 1917. Picasso, the master appropriator, forged his classicism from these many diverse sources. He told Marius de Zayas in a 1923 interview: "If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was" (quoted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 4).