During the early months of 1937 Pablo Picasso was responding powerfully to the Spanish Civil War with the preparatory drawings for Guernica and with etchings such as The Dream and Lie of Franco, an example of which is in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. However, in this period he also executed a group of works that do not betray this preoccupation with political events. The subject of On the Beach, also known as Girls with a Toy Boat, specifically recalls Picasso’s Three Bathers of 1920. Painted at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre near Versailles, On the Beach is one of several paintings in which he returns to the ossified, volumetric forms in beach environments that appeared in his works of the late 1920s and early 1930s. On the Beach can be compared with Henri Matisse’s Le Luxe, II, ca. 1907–08, in its simplified, planar style and in the poses of the foreground figures. It is plausible that the arcadian themes of his friendly rival Matisse would appeal to Picasso as an alternative to the violent images of war he was conceiving at the time.
At least two preparatory drawings have been identified for this work. In one (Collection Musée Picasso, Paris), the male figure looming on the horizon has a sinister appearance. In the other drawing (present whereabouts unknown),¹ as in the finished version, his mien is softened and neutralized to correspond with the features of the two female figures. The sense of impotent voyeurism conveyed as he gazes at the fertile, exaggeratedly sexual “girls” calls to mind the myth of Diana caught unaware at her bath.
1. Reproduced in Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, vol. 8 (Paris: Editions cahiers d'art, 1957), no. 343.