During the 1880s Auguste Renoir began exploring a type of painting that his contemporaries showed little interest in: classical nudes. With their naturalistic bent, most impressionists considered this genre to be an outmoded, academic exercise, but Renoir chose to appropriate the great classical heritage, from Raphael via Rubens to Ingres, in an attempt to cultivate a style of painting liberated from impressionist happenstance. He sought the beauty of lines and shapes within a harmonious, sensual whole, such as it could be expressed corporeally in young women.
After the bath epitomizes this new direction in Renoir’s art. Some considered this turn toward the classical ideals as treacly kitsch, while others, such as Matisse and Picasso (in the 1920s), found inspiration for their own work in the “late” Renoir. In the painting, a young woman has risen like a latter-day Aphrodite from the blue-green sea of the background, and as depicted within a simple, classical triangular composition, she sits and dries her still wet body.
The picture came to Scandinavia in 1914, first for an exhibition in Copenhagen and then for the National Gallery’s “French Exhibition” in the summer of 1914. Because of the outbreak of the First World War, the painting remained in the museum, although it still belonged to a French art dealer. Thanks to generous funding from the Norwegian shipowner Tryggve Sagen, After the Bath became a permanent part of the National Gallery’s collection in 1917.
Text: Nils Messel
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0