It has been argued that the painting was a reaction to Henri Matisse's paintings Le bonheur de vivre and Blue Nude. Its resemblance to Cezanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses and El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal was discussed by later commentators.
Picasso created over seven hundred sketches and studies in preparation for this painting. He completed the work in Paris in the summer of 1907. At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral. The art critic André Salmon gave it its current name; Picasso had always called it Le Bordel ("The Brothel"). It now belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City which acquired it in 1939.
Much of the critical debate that has taken place over the years centers on attempting to account for this multiplicity of styles within the work. The dominant understanding for over five decades, espoused most notably by Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and organizer of major career retrospectives for the artist, has been that it can be interpreted as evidence of a transitional period in Picasso's art, an effort to connect his earlier work to Cubism, the style he would help invent and develop over the next five or six years.
The earliest sketches of the work actually feature two men inside the brothel, one a sailor and the other a medical student (often depicted holding either a book or a skull, causing Barr and others to read the painting as a memento mori, a reminder of death). A trace of their presence at a table in the center remains: the jutting edge of a table near the bottom of the canvas. The viewer, Steinberg argues, has come to replace the sitting men, forced to confront the gaze of prostitutes head on, invoking readings far more complex than a simple allegory or the autobiographical reading that attempts to understand the work in relation to Picasso's own history with women. A world of meanings then becomes possible, suggesting the work as a meditation on the danger of sex, the "trauma of the gaze" (to use a phrase of Rosalind Krauss's invention), and the threat of violence inherent in the scene and sexual relations at large.
According to Steinberg, the reversed gaze, that is, the fact that the figures look directly at the viewer, as well as the idea of the self-possessed woman, no longer there solely for the pleasure of the male gaze, may be traced back to Manet's "Olympia" of 1863.
Picasso denied the influence of African masks on the painting: "African art, never heard of it." (L'art nègre? Connais pas!)
Nonetheless, he is known to have seen African tribal masks while working on the painting, during a visit to the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in June 1907, about which he later said "When I went to the Trocadero, it was disgusting. The flea market, the smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away, but I didn't leave. I stayed, I stayed. I understood that it was very important. Something was happening to me, right. The masks weren't like any other pieces of sculpture, not at all. They were magic things."
Luis Gispert's Señoritas Suicidio (2005) is a modern reinterpretation of Picasso's work, a photograph showing five suicide girls in poses very similar to those of Picasso's models, photographed as they emerge from a swimming pool.