Pierre Bonnard, ‘The Bath’ 1925
Pierre Bonnard
The Bath 1925

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries artists began to treat in radical new ways often very traditional subject matter. The nude, semi-clad figure and the bather became a common subject. A subject that has been used throughout art history, associated with artists such as Titian, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, it allowed artists to pursue and develop stylistic innovations whilst also expressing new attitudes towards the living form. What developed was an unromanticised view of the human body, a realism that sits within a classical tradition yet is representative of an emergent avant-garde and the birth of Modernism.

In the 1880s Edgar Degas began to produce a series of pastels that depict the female nude at her toilette. The images portray an unidealised intimacy; we are shown a modern woman in a realistic setting. Using similar interior settings Walter Sickert and Gwen John produced nude paintings in the early 1900s, John often suppressing background detail to focus intently on the figure. Pierre Bonnard began producing nudes in the mid 1920s, mainly using his wife Marthe as a model. In numerous intimate and domestic portraits we see her depicted in differing positions, offering an unromanticised view of the naked body.

At the same time as Degas was producing his nudes, Paul Cézanne began to introduce the subject of bathers to his work – mainly groups of bathers, set in naturalistic settings, by lakes or in woods. His figures are monumental in scale, with heavy limbs, reminiscent of Renaissance nudes. In the 1920s, although previously associated with Cubism and other avant-garde movements, both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse began to produce more naturalistic works depicting the female nude or semi-clad figure in traditional, often timeless poses.