The theme of this painting recurs in Cézanne's early work. It probably first appeared in two works which Cézanne submitted to the Salon in 1867, which were rejected for exhibition (present whereabouts unknown). The critic Arnold Mortier's description of the second, bawdier, painting corresponds to a drawing, a watercolour and a tiny oil sketch which are generally thought to have been executed between 1862 and 1867. These works have all the ingredients of the later Afternoon in Naples - the female nude sprawled on the nude man who nonchalantly lies on his stomach smoking a pipe, while a maid enters with refreshments.
According to Ambroise Vollard, the title L'Aprés-midi à Naples was suggested to Cézanne by his painter friend Antoine Guillemet. As Theodore Reff has noted, the title alludes 'to the popular notion of Italy as a place of freedom, of sensual life and gaiety'. The theme is typical of the erotic fantasies that appear frequently in Cézanne's early work, a fantasy informed by other art. In the first surviving watercolour for this composition, the appearance of the servant from the curtained background and the presence of a black cat seem to derive from Edouard Manet's Olympia 1863, exhibited at the Salon of 1865. On the other hand, John Rewald has pointed out that the attitude of abandonment of Cézanne's sprawled woman has little in common with Manet's steely Olympia, and is closer to Gustave Courbet's Woman with a parrot 1866, exhibited at the Salon of 1866.
In numerous drawings made throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s, and in another painting of the early 1870s, Cézanne returned to the subject. In a fully realised watercolour, generally dated 1872-75, Cézanne established the layout for his final version of the theme in the Canberra painting. In the watercolour, the servant, now clearly black, and the black cat, which is dropped from the final painting, hark back to Olympia. The final watercolour and the painting have a different mood from the earlier versions. In both versions, the maid has been replaced by a black woman in a red loincloth. A new element of exoticism and a colouristic richness is apparent in the final version of Aftemoon in Naples, almost certainly derived from Eugéne Delacroix and, it has been suggested, in particular from his Women of Algiers 1833.
The final version of Afternoon in Naples is also distinguished from its predecessors by the style in which it is painted. The technique of applying paint in parallel hatchings of pure colour that blend into each other in transitional passages, particularly evident in the treatment of the central area of the back wall and in the drapery, suggest Cézanne's absorption of the Impressionist technique, acquired while working with Camille Pissarro between 1872 and 1874. The distinctive facture of this painting, the short, individual, parallel brushstrokes that remain consistent over the entire surface irrespective of objects of varying physical nature and distinctions of background and foreground, is another legacy of Cézanne's Impressionist training. Although the subject of Afternoon in Naples has more in common with his works of the 1860s, and indeed originated in the 1860s as has been documented, the way in which it is painted suggests a date not before the early to mid-1870s, following his work with Pissarro.
adapted from Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australia National Gallery, 1992, pp.42-46, by Christine Dixon