This painting is registered in the archives of the Comité Masson.
The ravages of the First World War, when Masson was seriously wounded, provoked in the artist a profound questioning about human destiny and a search for a visual language to articulate metamorphosis. His violent wartime memories would continue to haunt him and inform his work over the next twenty five years, and were vividly reawakened by the Spanish civil war and the onslaught of the Second World War. The subject matter of the present work bears traces of this horror, although by the time it was painted, the artist's life was on a more even keel, compared to the rather tumultuous end to the 1920s. At a meeting called by Breton in early 1929 to discuss member responses to a letter on group action, Masson denounced Breton's authoritarian ways and demanded his own right to personal, independent activity. Breton responded in his second Surrealist manifesto by castigating Masson and formally expelling him from the movement. The same year Masson's marriage ended in divorce. However, 1934, the year the present work was painted, marked a new beginning for the artist with his marriage to Rose Maklès at the end of that year, and his self-imposed exile in Spain.
Masson described his method of working in the early 1930s: 'I would start with big stretches of colour and at the moment these surfaces became insufficient for me I would add lines, and little by little the theme would come... …This is how I proced dand in the end I give the picture a title' (A. Masson, quoted in exh. cat. André Masson, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 135). Masson employed a brilliant and bright colour palette in Spanish period paintings, as evident in Les fossoyeurs, belying the rather gruesome nature of the subject matter, which may allude indirectly to the unrest and upheaval already gripping Spain leading up to the outbreak of civil war in 1936.