Originally from Lausanne, Félix Vallotton was a close associate of the Nabis. He was an opponent of Impressionism, believing that its devotion to the landscape risked losing sight of social reality. He therefore emphasized realism to such an extent that his exhibitions routinely prompted minor scandals, as with this painting, which was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1893. It was, after all, a biting commentary on the landscape painting of the time, and on fin-de-siècle society. Vallotton’s exquisite caricature takes aim at a bourgeois bathing idyll. What must have made the scene even more shocking was the fact that the hairstyles, facial expressions and figures of the ladies mark them out as characteristic representatives of contemporary society.
The complex composition, which was preceded by a preparatory oil study, is Vallotton’s first major painting and one in which he reworks numerous historical references, from artists such as von Cranach, Botticelli and Renoir, in the ironic manner of the Nabis. Vallotton presents a modern variation on the old theme of the fountain of life, combining a strikingly malicious view of woman with delicacy of composition and concept. The rigorous planar composition, previously essayed in woodcuts, is characteristic of the artist.