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The Large Bathers (1884-1887): Renoir’s Return to Classical Painting

The Large Bathers is an example of Renoir’s experimentation combining a classic painting style with the newer style of the impressionists. Depicting three nude bathers frolicking at the water’s edge, the piece took Renoir three years to complete. In this article, Singulart explores the creative process behind The Large Bathers, as well as examines the symbolism of nude bathers to Renoir and other artists. 

How Renoir created The Large Bathers 

Although it is generally believed it took Renoir at least three years to complete The Large Bathers, he began working on the concept as early as 1881. According to art dealer Ambroise Vollard, Renoir felt compelled to paint the piece because his work was at “a blind alley”- he was disenchanted with the impressionist scene and a trip to Italy to view the great classics inspired him to marry the two styles in his new painting.

Renoir’s preparation for this painting was a sharp departure from the spontaneity of the impressionists. He completed at least twenty sketches, preliminary drawings, and watercolors in order to prepare for The Large Bathers. Inspired by the frescos he had viewed on a recent trip to Italy, Renoir used oil paints to recreate a similar feeling in the new work. However, in order to achieve his desired effect, Renoir actually removed most of the oil from his paints, and applied the drier paint in numerous layers.

The Large Bathers depicts three females at the bank of a river, with two smaller figures visible in the background. A girl in the river has her hand in the water, preparing to playfully splash her friend, who twists away at the gesture. A third woman, with a towel around her shoulders, watches them both with a tender expression on her face. The way Renoir has posed the three women shows his adeptness at painting the female form, with the triangle created by the three main women showing us their front, back and side views. The reclining figure on the left was the first to be completed, and then Renoir moved on to contemplating how to group the three figures together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Large Bathers (1884-1887)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Large Bathers (1884-1887)

Critical reception to The Large Bathers  

After hearing the reaction to The Large Bathers, Renoir told Vollard, “I got roundly trounced for it, I can tell you. This time, everybody… agreed that I was a lost soul; some even said I was lazy.” Critics did not react favorably to the new direction of Renoir’s work, and Renoir would never again dedicate so much time to one single painting. 

In recent years, the piece has picked up criticism from art historian Linda Nochlin, who states that the women depicted in the painting are being degraded, painted solely for the male gaze. She says:

“… I sought to demystify the male artist’s disempowering idealization of the female body… The Large Bathers was the paradigm of all I found wrong with the traditional representation of the nude, I found the painting… pernicious both from a formal standpoint and in terms of what it represented.”

Why did so many great artists paint bathers? 

Renoir’s preference for painting the nude female form was unusual amongst impressionists, who preferred to capture the fleeting minutiae of everyday life rather than staged portraits. At the time Renoir painted The Large Bathers, Parisian attitudes towards bathing women were divided. On the one hand, bathing in the Seine, in the “pure” water, was considered healthy and wholesome, even edifying. However, the local pools were not highly regarded, seen to be filled with women with low morals whose drinking and smoking polluted the water. The Large Bathers was a reference to an idyllic time when voluptuous, robust women would be free to swim out in the open air of nature. 

Jean Metzinger, The Bathers (1913)
Jean Metzinger, The Bathers (1913)

Painting bathing women allowed artists to explore the female form in new ways, from the Raphaelite influences seen in The Large Bathers to the cubist take on the subject in Jean Metzinger’s The Bathers. Artists began to depict more realistic body shapes in their work, and the view of bathing moved from a seductive and romantic act to something that liberated people, and took them back into a naturalistic setting.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (1884)
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières (1884)

Throughout history, bathing has symbolized absolution and cleanliness, but could also have underlying themes of death, fertility, voyeurism, renewal, and purification. While works such as The Large Bathers by Renoir or Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat depicted bathing as a leisurely, communal activity, later artworks by artists like Paul Gauguin portrayed the activity in a more erotic light, seen in works such as Bathers in Tahiti

Want to see contemporary artworks in a similar style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Renoir Collection.

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