How Nude Bathers in Art Captivated Early Modernists
A common subject used throughout art history that has been associated with artists such as Titian, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt, the depiction of nude bathers has a number of meanings attached to it. The most common ones refer to ablution, cleanliness, and the act of washing in water, but it was also associated with themes such as death, voyeurism, fertility, renewal and purification, rainfall, healing, birth, or tears. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, the theme of bathers, especially female ones, was often used as a strategy to show the nude in a naturalistic rather than an academic or mythological setting, or to show a plausible setting in which to show nude figures out of doors, as part of a natural mode of bathing or swimming. Until the late nineteenth century, visions of female nudes frolicking in water dominated the romanticized and seductive act of bathing.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artists began treating this subject in radical new ways. This traditional theme allowed them to pursue and develop stylistic innovations whilst also expressing new attitudes towards the living form. Artists soon started developing more realistic portrayal of the human body, showing its less than perfect physiognomies. Edgar Degas produced a series of pastels depicting the female nude at her toilette, unaware of the viewer, that portray an unidealized intimacy, while Paul Cezanne created a series of paintings depicting groups of bathers, both male and female, in naturalistic settings by lakes or in woods.
In the early 20th century, Fauves, Cubists and German Expressionists also favored the subject of nude female and male bathers. In these themes, they saw liberation between the sexes and union with nature in a return to the primitive. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Pablo Picasso all introduced their versions of the subject, often producing more naturalistic works depicting the female nude of semi-clad figure in traditional, often timeless poses.
The meanings attached to the bath and bathing are manifold. We have compiled ten most notable early modernist paintings depicting nude bathers for you to contemplate and enjoy.
Featured images: Paul Cezanne – Bathers at Rest, 1904; Henri Lebasque – Bathers at a Fountain in Saint Tropez (detail), 1906, via urgetocreate.com; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Bathers at Moritzburg (detail), 1909–26; Duncan Grant – Bathers (detail), 1911, via pictify.com. All images for illustrated purposes only.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Large Bathers, 1884-87
Created between 1884 and 1887, The Large Bathers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicts female bathers imbued with a sculptural quality, with the landscape behind them shimmering with impressionistic light. Renoir here aimed to reconcile the modern forms of painting with the painting traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries, trying to find a compromise between the new impressionist style and the styles of old masters. The painting is in part inspired by a 1672 sculpture by Francois Girardon titled The Bath of Nymphs.
Featured image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir – The Large Bathers, 1884–1887
Edgar Degas - The Tub, 1886
Presented at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, the pastel The Tub by Edgar Degas is one of a series of seven pictures produced by Degas in the mid-1880s on the theme of women at their ablutions. His minute observation of their intimate, everyday gestures is a far cry from the traditional romantic scenes of ladies at their toilette. The unique composition, coupled with the fact that the viewer looks down upon the bather, places him in the position of the unseen and uninvited observer. By depicting the unglamorous and banal aspect of everyday life, Degas is giving the viewer a glimpse into a reality.
Featured image: Edgar Degas – The Tub, 1886
Paul Cézanne - Bathers, 1898-05
Through his studies of groups of bathers outdoors, Paul Cézanne reconceived a classical subject in a modern, pictorial idiom, influencing highly the representation of the nude. The paradigm he created affected many subsequent movements and styles. Cézanne created many paintings that served as a study for his monumental canvases of bather subjects, but the painting Bathers, now considered a masterpiece of Modern Art, is an independent, exploratory work painted with a more spiritual touch. Cézanne worked on the painting for seven years, and it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1906.
Featured image: Paul Cézanne – Bathers, 1898-1905
Paul Gauguin - The Bathers, 1897
Renowned for his „savage“ art, Paul Gauguin depicted sumptuous Tahitian women, nude bathers, and haystacks in the surreal landscape. His works are characterized by flat forms, vibrant colors and untamed nature of primitive art. Titled Bathers, this depiction of bathers in an exotic landscape of lively hues was painted on Gauguin’s second trip to Tahiti. In this piece, he re-sexualises natural nudity, instilling the scene with western taboo. All the same, the Bathers demonstrates Gauguin’s mastery of color and composition.
Featured image: Paul Gauguin – The Bathers, 1897
Henri Matisse - Bathers with a Turtle, 1908
By the end of the 19th century, Henri Matisse has started experimenting with dimension, a kind of flattening process in which the images become less literal and more symbolic. In one of his most original paintings from 1908 titled Bathers with a Turtle, Matisse depicts three simplified nudes that resemble a child’s drawing. One of them is feeding a turtle. None of the figures make eye contact with another; instead, each appears completely absorbed in her own thoughts. Sky, water, and earth are large flat areas of color that make us wonder where these women are.
Featured image: Henri Matisse – Bathers with a Turtle, 1908, via art-matisse.com
Jean Metzinger - The Bathers, 1913
Painted in Meudon, the Parisian suburb near Puteaux, The Bathers by Jean Metzinger is an avant-garde take on a popular theme employed by many nineteenth-century French artists. Metzinger has transformed this classic subject through the application of Cubism, with a composition simplified into planar forms and the use of a limited color palette of greens and browns. The painting also provides the viewer a voyeuristic vantage point, depicting the subjects and the environment from an elevated perspective.
Featured image: Jean Metzinger – The Bathers, 1913, via flickr.com
Maurice Denis - Wave, 1916
A French painter and writer and a member of the Symbolist and Les Nabis movements, the theories of Maurice Denis contributed greatly to the foundations of Cubism, Fauvism, and abstract art. The painting Wave from 1916 was painted about 27 years after the foundation of Les Nabis, and his painting style reflects the theory of the movement. The bold composition of the waves, rocks, and bathers let shapes and colors appear in the way they were intended and give voluminous and vibrant impressions.
Featured image: Maurice Denis – Wave, 1916, via triviumarthistory.com
Pablo Picasso - Three Bathers, 1920
Pablo Picasso has also experimented with the theme of bathers, both nude and in gaily striped bathing suits. These experiments started in 1918 and continued until 1971. In the painting Three Bathers from 1920, Picasso depicted nudes with distorted bodies. The hand and arm of the nude in the foreground is gigantic and swollen compared to the too-small head, while the arms and legs of the seated nude are impossibly long compared to her head and torso. With these enlargements and attenuations, Picasso combined classical symmetry with its opposite, the grotesque.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso – Three Bathers, 1920
Pierre Bonnard - The Bath, 1925
In the mid-1920s, Pierre Bonnard created numerous intimate and domestic portraits of his wife Martha where she is depicted in differing positions, offering an unromanticised view of the naked body. The painting The Bath from 1925 is one of the series of works that Bonnard made of his wife in the bath. Despite being a woman in her mid-fifties, the artist depicted her as a young woman. The bath, which is cut off at both ends, combined with the structure of the wall create a rigorously geometric composition. This creates a strangely lifeless effect.
Featured image: Pierre Bonnard – The Bath, 1925, via tate.uk.org
Giorgio de Chirico - Bathers on the beach, 1934
After 1919, Giorgio de Chirico became interested in traditional painting techniques, and worked in a neoclassical or neo-Baroque style, while frequently revisiting the metaphysical themes of his earlier work. In 1934, de Chirico created the painting Bathers on the Beach depicting five nude female figures. He places these figures against the background of the sky, the sea, and the earth, placing an importance on depth. The beach serves as a metaphor of earthly world for de Chirico, suggesting the presence of the transcendent object of love.
Featured images: Giorgio de Chirico – Bathers on the beach, 1934