Pablo Picasso’s yearly seaside holidays, especially those by the Mediterranean shore, invariably stimulated a creatively productive celebration of sun, water, eroticism, and imaginary journeys into ancient mythology. The artist drew Baigneuses et crabe on 4 July 1938, only a few days into his third consecutive summer vacation at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins, overlooking Cannes and the sea. He invoked in this baignade the presence of the Three Graces, the Greco-Roman personifications of beauty, desire, and fulfillment, handmaidens of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love. Three such young, attractive women were in fact available at the Vaste Horizon that summer to play these roles: Picasso’s own lover Dora Maar, Nusch Éluard, who was staying at the hotel with her husband Paul, a leading surrealist poet and Picasso’s favorite male friend, and Inès Odorisi (later Sassier), the chambermaid, who subsequently joined Picasso and Dora to become their housekeeper when they returned to Paris in the fall.
The disrobing figure at right is Dora; Inès is about to take her gown. Nusch reaches down to touch a crab scuttling along the water’s edge. Picasso created this drawing on a day under the astrological sign of Cancer, the crab; Nusch was born 21 June 1906—the crab was her sun sign. Picasso was perhaps also alluding to the sculpture Femme au crabe, which Aristide Maillol modeled in 1904, as well as the two studies of crabs that Vincent van Gogh painted in 1887 and 1889.
For much of the time that Picasso, Dora, and their friends spent at the Vaste Horizon, they relaxed under the shade of a pergola, thatched with cane reeds, that cast striped, form-defining shadows on any person or thing beneath it. During the previous summer of 1937, Dora and Man Ray delighted in this magical, transforming effect, and took numerous photographs of Picasso and his guests, showing them overlaid with zebra stripes in zig-zag patterns of light and shade.
This serendipitous discovery inspired Picasso to experiment with a novel method of linear construction in two pen-and-ink figure studies he created in his Paris studio in late April 1938 (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 131-132). Elaborating on the classic method of criss-cross hatching used in old master drawings and etched prints, Picasso employed repeated, often intersecting striations—resembling chair caning or the weaving of straw in basketry—to fill out the figure’s contours, imparting volume and emphasis to the body forms. Rendering the figure, solitary or in groups, in his most obsessive manner yet, he pieced together heads, limbs, and torsos in intricate, filigree lattices of line, to create surrealistically unified, part-and-parcel drawings, in which every line is connected, web-like, to multiple other lines. Picasso drew on 10 April 1938 a second version of the three bathers on a slightly smaller sheet, which he enhanced with watercolor (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 172; Musée Picasso, Paris).