Picasso's lifelong fascination with the corrida coincided with a renewal of interest in bullfighting among the populace of Provence during the years following the Second World War. Picasso regularly attended corridas held in the ancient Roman arenas still in use in Arles and Nîmes, as well as fights in smaller towns. "On such occasions it was rare not to find Picasso occupying a place in the front row, surrounded by a party of his friends and receiving the ceremonial honours of the fight" (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, third ed., Berkeley, 1981, p. 391). Picasso made numerous series of drawings and prints during the 1950s, culminating in his series of aquatints titled La Tauromaquia, which illustrated a text on the art of bullfighting by the famous torero Pepe Illo. This book was published on the occasion of Picasso's 78th birthday on 25 October 1959, and the artist continued to feature the bullfight in paintings, drawings and prints into the next decade.
Picasso painted Avant la pique on Good Friday, 15 April 1960. It commemorates the important bullfights held during Easter weekend each year in Arles, one of the high points of the fight season in Provence, which lasts from February to October. Earlier that month, on 6 April, Picasso had done a series of large paintings of the Arles arena, seen from a bird's-eye view (Zervos, vol. 19, nos. 227-230). The present painting, one of a series of seven done on the same day (Zervos, vol. 19, nos. 281-286 and 288), is much smaller and the events are seen close up. It depicts the approach of the mounted picador, who, as seen in subsequent pictures in this group, weakens the bull for the matador by stabbing it in the shoulder with his lance, while his horse struggles to avoid being gored by the enraged beast. Picasso was especially drawn to this aspect of the ritual, which takes place early in the fight, because of the confrontation of man, horse and bull, a drama which he recounted in a different symbolic context in his famous mural Guernica, 1937 (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 65; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid).