Picasso's interest in the bathers theme may be traced from the early phases of his career to near the end of his long life. As early as 1905 he was drawn to Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres' Le bain turc, 1862, which he could view in the Louvre. The painting provided an extensive catalogue of nude female figures in diverse poses which Picasso could exploit in his own manner. Ingres' masterpiece of mid-19th century classicism was especially influential on Picasso's treatment of the nude in his classical bather compositions after the First World War and early 1920s, and the artist referred to it again in his great surrealist bathers of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
To this grand historical precedent Picasso brought his own conception of the figure, which he worked on during his seaside holidays in Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, and Cannes on the Côte d'Azur, Biarritz on the Côte d'Argent, and Dinard in Brittany. During these stays he busily fillled his sketchbooks with studies of bathers, and he expanded on this theme after returning to his Paris and Boisgeloup studios. Picasso may have viewed the beach as an austere stage, composed of simple bands of air, sea and sand, and filled with glaring light, against which the human figure stood in dramatic silhouette, and could be easily subjected to whatever deformations of line and volume that the artist chose to visit upon it.
After the end of the Second World War Picasso spent lengthy periods in Midi, and in 1955 he purchased La Californie, an elegant villa overlooking Cannes, with broad views of the Golfe-Juan and nearby Antibes. One of his favorite beaches was La Garoupe in Antibes, the scene of a film by his friend, the director Henri-Georges Clouzot. In early 1956 he took up the bather theme once again, completing the large canvas Deux nus sur la plage in March (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 36). The two nudes in this composition are female, as are the great majority of Picasso's bathers, and their poses harken back to Ingres' Bain Ture.
In September 1956 the artist began work on a mixed male and female baignade. He developed the idea in numerous drawings (Zervos, vol. 17, nos. 160-169, 171-174 and 183-204), and produced a series of six large sculptures, the tallest measuring 84 in. (214 cm.), which he fabricated from pieces of scrap wood and then painted (see fig.). Known as Les baigneurs (Spies, nos. 503-508; coll. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), these figures are true to their materials, which include painting stretcher bars. Despite their three-dimensionality, they are absolutely flat, rectangular and slat-like, in contrast to the complex, geometrically implied volumes in the painting Deux nus sur la plage. Picasso subsequently had the sculptures of Les baigneurs cast in bronze.
While working on these sculptures Picasso painted the first version of Le tremplin ("The Diving Board"; Zervos, vol. 17, no. 159). Less than a year later he returned to the bather theme, and began with this same subject, painting the present work. The source of the figures here are three of the wood sculptures in the group Les baigneurs. The dominant central figure perched on the diving board derives from the sculpture La femme aux bras ecartés (Spies, no. 507), the only female bather in the group. The wavy forms below her arms are her flowing tresses. The male figure on the left is derived from L'homme fontaine (Spies, no. 505), so named because he is urinating. The large circular face at lower right is based on L'enfant (Spies, no. 506). In the earlier version of Le tremplin, this figure was a bearded old man, a surrogate for the artist.
The figures in the present painting resemble the cut-out and drawn dolls that Picasso was fond of making since his childhood, and which he often fashioned for his own children, working in paper or cardboard. The group Les baigneurs was Picasso's last large construction in wood, and thereafter his preferred medium in sculpture was cut sheet metal. To this material Picasso adapted his cut paper technique, no doubt partly inspired by the late cut-outs of Matisse, whose passing in 1954 had profoundly moved him.
The present version of Le tremplin was followed by two more paintings on 22 July 1956. The second was a more detailed bust length close-up of the female bather, this time with her arms lowered (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 349). The final painting in this series is Le nageur (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 350), in which an older bearded man, again a likely stand-in for the artist, coughs up water and flails his arms and legs as he swims in the tide.
Picasso returned to the subject of Le tremplin once again at the end of 1957 as he prepared to execute a large painting on the subject of the flight of Icarus, which UNESCO commissioned for the Hall of the Delegates Lobby in its office in Paris. The preliminary studies show the figures of the bather sculptures translated onto an imaginary canvas set in a studio interior, with a reclining nude nearby (Zervos, vol. 17, nos. 409ff; vol. 18, nos. 2ff). The girl with outstretched arms in Le Tremplin was then by stages transformed into the plunging figure of Icarus in the mural, which Picasso completed in 1958 (La chute d'Icare; not in Zervos). The writer Gaëtan Picon observed: "The painting, the springboard. It is between these two elements that everything is played out. Is the diver not like the painter, facing the risk and the void of his element?" Picasso told Pierre Daix "I painted them [Les Baigneurs] to start with, then I sculpted them, and then I painted them again in a picture of the sculptures. Painting and sculpture truly talked together" (both quotes cited in M.L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 423).