The present drawing is part of a series of preparatory studies for La flûte de Pan, a large-format oil painting that Picasso executed at Antibes during the summer of 1923. The finished canvas depicts two adolescent boys in white bathing trunks, set against an abstracted backdrop of sea, sky, and flat screens. The figure on the right sits on a cubic block playing the pipes, while his companion stands beside him listening. The painting has been called "the peak of Picasso's neoclassicism" and "Picasso's masterpiece of this period" (B. Léal, et al., The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, pp. 185 and 219). The artist himself attached sufficient importance to the canvas that he kept it in his possession throughout his life.
Picasso experimented with several variants of the composition before settling on a definitive version. In one group of preparatory drawings, the pipe player serenades two lovers, who are attended by a winged Cupid. In another series, which includes the present example, a youth plays the flute for either a reclining female nude or a pair of seated women, sometimes on the beach and other times in an interior. William Rubin has related these drawings to Picasso's infatuation with Sara Murphy, the wealthy and attractive wife of the American painter Gerald Murphy. The couple spent the summer of 1923 at the Hôtel du Cap in Antibes along with Picasso, his wife Olga, and their infant son Paulo. Sara Murphy is known to have worn pearls to the beach every day, and in several studies for La flûte de Pan, the female bather has a string of pearls around her neck. Rubin proposes that Picasso decided to obliterate the female figure from La flûte de Pan when his affair or flirtation with Sara came to an end.
The primary inspiration for La flûte de Pan, however, was certainly the art of antiquity. One possible antecedent for the flute player is the Hellenistic statue group of Pan teaching Daphnis to play the pipes. Several copies of this group are extant, one of which Picasso would have seen in the Museo Nazionale in Naples during his trip to Italy in 1917. Roman frescoes provide another likely source. In the Museo Nazionale, for instance, there is a painting from the House of Jason at Pompeii that features a scene of Pan and the Muses. Additionally, a painting in the Villa of the Mysteries, which Picasso may have visited during his Italian sojourn, depicts a young boy playing the flutes. Notably, Picasso seems to have had ancient frescoes on his mind in 1923, when La flûte de Pan was painted. That year, Diaghilev tried to persuade the artist to restore a mildewed curtain from the ballet Parade, but Picasso refused on the grounds that "it resembled the deteriorated frescoes of Pompeii and was much better so," as Diaghilev's assistant later recalled (quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 437).