Following his return to Paris from self-imposed exile in Switzerland in September 1945, Giacometti's new concept of the figure began to coalesce into his hallmark attenuated style of sculpting. When he initially resumed work in his studio at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron, the influence of the tiny figures he had created from 1942-1945 in Geneva and brought back to Paris with him in a matchbox was still very apparent.
Scholars have cited many catalysts for the development of Giacometti's mature style, but essential among these was the overwhelming vitality of post-war Paris. Many of Giacometti's contemporaries who had fled to New York or far-flung destinations throughout Europe had returned to Paris, exhilarated at the prospect of creation following the dark years of the Second World War. Additionally, Giacometti enjoyed the renewed support of his brother and close confidant Diego, a deep friendship with the novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and a love affair with a young Swiss woman, Annette Arm, whom he would marry in 1949. Most importantly, Giacometti himself underwent radical changes in his perception of the human figure. Through the process of obsessively sketching passersbys on the streets of Paris, he began to perceive his figures at a great distance, undifferentiated and radically attenuated. Giacometti published illustrations from his sketchbooks in Cahiers d'art, and his sculptures took on a dramatically elongated form, characterized by a hieratic, austere frontality.
Giacometti's new work drew the attention of noted New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse and a champion of the avant-garde. In 1948, a selection of Giacomett's sculptures from the late 1920s to the present debuted at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, and were met with immediate international acclaim by both collectors and critics. The emaciated, anonymous, seemingly desperate figures were seen as visionary, a metaphor for post-war angst in both Europe and the United States. The present work is a prime example of Giacometti's immediate postwar style.
Mary Lisa Palmer has noted that Giacometti sketched the present sculpture with the following annotation: "Figurine on a base which, to me, is a boat." The sketch, along with this cast itself, was sent to Pierre Matisse for the second Giacometti exhibition to be held at his gallery in November 1950. Palmer cites Giacometti's profound interest in Egyptian sculpture and culture as an influence for the present work (and, indeed, for the hieratic nature of his postwar works as a whole), and remarks that the subject matter of a woman standing atop a long barge may even reference the Egyptian god Ra traveling in his celestial barque.
In describing his post-war revelatory period his friend Albert Skira's publication Labyrinthe, the artist wrote,
During that period I had begun to see heads in the void, in the space that surrounded them. The first time I saw a head I was looking at freeze, become fixed in a single instant forever, I trembled with terror as never before in my life, and a cold sweat ran down my back. This was no longer a living head, but an object which I look at as I would look at any other object; yet not quite, not like any other object, differently, like something that was dead and alive at the same time. I let out a cry of terror as if I had crossed over a threshold, as I had gone into a world that no one had seen before (quoted in "The Dream, The Sphinx and The Death of T.," M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2001, pp. 31-32).