The depiction of female bathers without the framework of an established story became a new feature in French painting in the 1720s. François Lemoyne’s “The Bather” was the first prominent painting of that type. Lemoyne dropped the accepted framework of a historical or biblical subject and created a different and fully unapologetic type of painting. “The Bather” was painted for the well-known fermier général, or tax farmer, François Berger and shown at the Salon of 1725—a truly public work. When Jean-Antoine Watteau painted similar female nudes around 1717/19, they remained private works and were tellingly not engraved.
“The Bather” was painted in Italy, where Lemoyne spent several years studying in Venice and Rome. Since the mid-seventeenth century, French painters had been sent south of the Alps to study the noble forms of ancient sculpture and the grand manner of Italian Renaissance masters, such as Raphael and Michelangelo in Florence and Rome. The intention was that French painting should become equally as grand and as historically resonant as the admired Renaissance prototypes. But Lemoyne was essentially a sensualist and was more attracted to the blandishments of color, light, and materiality, which characterize Venetian painting. This preference was in harmony with most of his contemporaries. In the decades on either side of 1700, artists like Lemoyne were reacting to the classical style and the ponderous meaning of art promoted by the French Académie Royale.
Philip Conisbee, "Michael L. Rosenberg's Eighteenth Century," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 11–23.
Christoph Martin Vogtherr, "Moving on from Watteau: Jean-Baptiste Pater and the Transformation of the Fête Galante," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 81–94.