Having been born and raised by the sea, in Málaga, La Coruña, and Barcelona, the opportunity of his annual summer holiday meant for Picasso a welcome break from Paris and a return to the primal elements of the seaside environment. Having vacationed the previous year in Cannes, Picasso chose Dinard, near St. Mâlo in Brittany, for the summer of 1928. His wife Olga was ill and needed rest; Dinard, where he had first stayed in the summer of 1922, was moreover a family-friendly place for the artist’s young son Paulo and his governess. But most importantly, Picasso also wanted to have Marie-Thérèse Walter, his youthful mistress, close by, while keeping her and Olga apart. Arriving in Dinard on 27 July, he rented the Villa des Roches, north of town, as quarters for his family and himself–they would use the beach at Saint-Enogat. When Marie-Thérèse came in early August, Picasso set her up in a pension de jeunes filles across town–he required a well-supervised establishment to prevent young men from harassing her. Picasso and Marie-Thérèse would meet daily, at the Plage de l’Ecluse on the harbor side of Dinard, well outside an area where they and Olga might cross paths.
Prior to his paramour's arrival, Picasso had commenced on 27 July his carnet Dinard, in which he created volumetric studies in hatched pen and black ink that depict one or two bathers with ball shapes, taking inspiration from sea-worn driftwood, pebbles and bones he had found along the shore (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 194, 200-205, 208 et al; Glimcher carnet, no. 96). Together with the sculpturesque drawings Picasso had done in Cannes the previous summer (Zervos, vol. 7, nos. 84-88, 90-109 and 112; Glimcher carnets, nos. 94 and 95), these bather studies are among the most formally inventive and beautifully rendered works on paper of his entire career.
By 9 August, Picasso began to paint bather scenes as well, on small canvases, usually one or two each day, until the end of the month, nearly thirty in all. He completed the present painting on 20 August, together with another (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 234; Musée Picasso, Paris). Pierre Daix has called these canvases “a breathtaking series...whose vehement, angular disproportions achieve the boldest remodelings of the female body he had done to this point. Women bathers playing with a ball or fitting their keys into a bathhouse lock compose a dynamic scene which Pierre de Champris has rightly compared to Mycenaean idols on display in the Louvre. But the touch of Freudianism, and the renewal of sexual exuberance in the boldness of reconstructions and dissociations of form, are illuminated this time by the presence of Marie-Thérèse” (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 208-209).
“They are crammed with action, imbued with the cult of sun, sea and sand, and they crackle with sexual energy,” John Richardson has declared. “Sometimes he adopts the viewpoint of someone lying on the beach. As they burst out of their tiny formats these figures appear all the taller and turn into flat, pinheaded cutouts in striped bathing suits like the Douanier Rousseau’s Football Players. The girls’ sticklike limbs rhyme with rickety wooden frames of the deck chairs on the beach... Note how Picasso sets up the pictorial rhymes between the jagged silhouettes of the offshore rocks and the jagged cutouts of the girls’ breasts and buttocks and straddled limbs. Note, too, how alert he is to changes in the weather and light... Picasso was justifiably proud of having caught the light of Dinard in these paintings” (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 361).
The Viscount and Viscountess de Noailles, early owners of the present Baigneuses au ballon, were key figures at the center of Parisian avant-garde style in the 1920s. Marie-Laure was the patron and muse of artists, filmmakers, and musicians such as Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dali, and Francis Poulenc, and the creator of the most highly regarded modernist interiors commissioned from Jean-Michel Frank. Marie-Laure and her husband, Charles de Noailles, assembled a collection of paintings and sculpture that included Rubens and Goya but also every member of the European avant-garde. They were patrons for the most daring films of the twenties and thirties, notably Buñuel and Dali’s The Golden Age. Intellectually precocious, Marie-Laure was reading Mallarmé and Poe before the age of ten and reciting Baudelaire for visitors.
Pablo Picasso, Baigneuses jouant au ballon, 20 August 1928. Musée Picasso, Paris.