During the summer of 1923, Picasso stayed at Antibes. His works were immediately infused with the beach and the summer. Executed during this stay, Picasso's Femme nue tenant une serviette is filled with the light of summer. Picasso has used only the simplest, most calligraphic lines to delineate the figure, allowing the light sheet to shine in its own right, lending the work a shimmering luminescence.
Picasso's style in Femme nue tenant une serviette reflects Picasso's interest in the so-called rappel à l'ordre that came in the wake of the First World War. Suddenly, beauty and tranquility and a pre-mechanisation classical aesthetic came to figure in his pictures. The beach provided Picasso with intriguingly ambiguous possibilities on this front: his images of figures on the sand such as Les pipes de Pan of the same period, now in the Musée Picasso in Paris, appear to be from ancient times, yet could almost be contemporary figures enjoying the summer in the South of France. In some of his pictures of this period, he portrayed women wearing classical robes. Femme nue tenant une serviette affords him a far more intriguing ambiguity, as the towel is timeless, echoing the drapery of yore and yet being a current feature of life on the beach. Here, the statuesque swimmer of the 1920s is filled with the lyricism and timelessness of the classical.
In Antibes, a social carnival whirled around Picasso as he was surrounded by the great and the good, the rich and the famous, the talented and the infamous. Among these were the American couple Gerald and Sara Murphy, who provided partial inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters Dick and Nicole Diver. Picasso was particularly struck by Sara Murphy, whom he had met a couple of years prior but only came to know well during the summer of 1923. Recently it has been suggested that many of the images from that year especially, which had formerly been believed to portray his wife Olga, in fact show Sara. In the case of his beach images from that year this is all the more reasonable a supposition, as his relationship with Olga was cooling, as is represented in many cold and distant representations of her. The warmth and statuesque beauty and confidence of the woman in Femme nue tenant une serviette point strongly to this being the famous model for his classical masterpieces such as Mère et enfant in the Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art and his large drawing Femme au turban of the same year, sold in these rooms in 2002 (fig. 1).