The portrayal of mermaid-like hybrid water beings was highly popular in the art of symbolism. Themes such as Odysseus and the sirens, the neirads, Ophelia, and Melusina provided an opportunity to convey seductive female beauties who demonstrate the nakedness of the female body with open eroticism. Mermaid-like water beings which loll and drift in the water with abandon were first portrayed by Klimt in 1898 in the small-format painting "Moving Water." A drawn variation of this painting was published that same year in the March edition of the magazine "Ver Sacrum" under the title "Fish Blood." The picture "Girlfriends"—also known under the title "Water Serpents I"—is another unusually small work that was also completed on precious parchment material. The majority of the work was completed in 1904. In later years Klimt only made very miniscule additions before presenting it in Galerie Miethke in 1907. The painting was acquired from this gallery by industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, and for a sum that would otherwise be paid for one of Klimt's large portraits.
In this work, Klimt masterfully uses a large variety of decorative shapes derived from animal and plant motifs. Despite its small size, Klimt enriches the painting with a wealth of different graphically designed, graceful ornamentation, which give the parchment an oriental handwritten character like a Persian miniature. In terms of the two mermaid beings, Klimt clearly took ideas from depictions by the Dutch Art Nouveau painter Jan Toorop. One of these paintings—"Fatalism", which was presented in 1901 in the Vienna Secession—may have been a direct inspiration. Like Klimt's version, slim female bodies with overly long, angular limbs draw the viewer's attention.