Following the scandal caused by the exhibition of his portrait of Anatole France at the Salon de la Nationale in 1921, Van Dongen abruptly left Paris for Venice with his friend the art critic Michel Georges-Michel. There he befriended the notorious femme fatale Marchese Luisa Casati and, through her, was introduced to a level of aristocracy that had heretofore been inaccessible to him. "La Casati" as she was called, maintained homes in Italy and France, and her lavish parties and exploits caused sensations wherever she went. While the present picture might portray any one of the many fashionable resorts that Van Dongen frequented (Nice, Deauville or Monte Carlo, to name a few), it may also have been inspired by one of the exclusive Venetian hotels or the Casino on the island of Lido that Van Dongen visited on this trip.
The years immediately following the First World War marked an important transition in Van Dongen's painting which is evident in both their handling and their choice of subject. While Van Dongen enjoyed recording his travels through Europe, it is the atmosphere of gaiety that characterized "les annés folles" that he sought to render in his paintings. Of these years he said, "I passionately love the life of my time, so animated, so feverish" (quoted in D. Sutton, Cornelis Theodorus Marie Van Dongen, exh. cat., University of Arizona, Tucson, 1971, p. 46). As Denys Sutton notes "These paintings, in which svelte and seductive girls are posed against backgrounds of a single color show that he was no longer attracted by the rather crude women that had appealed to him in the pre-war period, but by more sleek and slender types, and he paid homage to what Chaumeil called "une nudité sous cellophane"(ibid., p. 48).
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the rebellious freedom of the time in his short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1920) and in subsequent novels, and Hollywood recorded it in movies such as A Social Celebrity (1926) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928), but it was Van Dongen who conveyed the exuberance of the modern age in painting. By combining bold color, rapid brushwork and stylized forms, he created a seductive cosmopolitan style that was uniquely his own. In Sur la plage, Van Dongen depicts two "thoroughly modern" women, dressed in the fashionable flapper attire with their hair "bobbed". They saunter through a courtyard where a couple discretely enjoy an apéritif, while a hotel bellman stands at attention and dogs frolick. The painting captures perfectly the glamor and sophistication of the belle monde enjoying their diversions. As Dorothy Parker wrote in her poetic tribute The Flapper:
The Playful flapper here we see,
The Fairest of the fair.
She's not what Grandma used to be,
You might say, au contraire.
Her girlish ways may cause a scene,
But there is no more harm in her
Than in a submarine.