Elizabeth Metcalfe explores why the meditative act of bathing has captured artists' imaginations for hundreds of years and why it remains such an immersive subject.
For centuries, the act of bathing has provided rich fodder for artists. From a goddess and her nymphs bathing in a watery arcadia in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-1559) to a lone woman standing next to a tin bath in Vanessa Bell’s The Tub (1917), the subject attracted attention from Renaissance masters to radical modernists alike. Perhaps what unites them most is a largely female focus – as if the subject of bathing was as much a vehicle to explore the female nude, as it was a chance to demonstrate mastery of something as unstable as water. Another common thread is that the bathing, whether communal or in the private confines of the bathroom in Bell’s painting, is portrayed as a meditative act – one that is contemplative, cosseting, almost transformative.
Thirty years before, Edgar Degas caused quite a stir by exhibiting seven pastels of women bathing at what was to be the final Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1886. Rather than depicting idealised nudes, each work examines a woman, hunched or kneeling, as she went about her daily ablutions. Crouched over shallow, galvanised metal pans, some women are dunking a sponge into a modest puddle of water, others squeezing it over their backs. Degas – in what now feels unacceptably voyeuristic – said he wanted the paintings to feel “as if you were looking through a keyhole”, but critics deemed these works animalistic. The artist had recently started collecting Japanese woodcuts, depicting the floating world (known as ukiyo), and these no doubt inspired him to paint women simply washing rather than as classical nudes. One of the prints he acquired was Interior of a Bathhouse (c. 1787) by Torii Kiyongaga, which showed women washing in a communal, artificially heated sentō bath. Some are with children, while others sit with their knees folded. It’s a scene of serenity, order and naturalness.
While bathing is regarded as a largely private activity today, it started out as a communal en plein air affair. An almost ritualistic past time, it had very little to do with hygiene or frothy bubbles. In Japan, public bathing took off in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with both ‘sentō’ baths and hot spring-fed onsen baths. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century, with more plentiful supplies of water and the advent of indoor plumbing that communal bathing was eclipsed by the private bath tub. Even when it became a more domestic activity, a bath didn’t always translate as an indulgent soak – they were medicinal and generally taken cold as a panacea.
As the bath increasingly became part of the domestic sphere, it became more valued as a meditative activity. Take The Bath ( 1873-74) by Belgian artist Alfred Stevens, which depicts a wealthy French girl looking out pensively as she reclines in a metal tub. In her hand, she clutches a pair of white roses, perhaps symbolic of young love and longing. The bath here is framed as a place for thinking. Even Paul Cézanne’s paintings of bathers en masse – of which he painted almost 200 – suggest the meditative qualities of bathing. In Bathers (1894-1905), the culmination of his fascination with bathing that he painted in the final decade of his life, a group of eleven women recline on the ground in a woodland glade, contemplative and seemingly uninhibited. Bathing offers a chance for escape – as if throwing off a day’s clothes and entering the water can momentarily unburden you from reality. The Bath (1923) by Belgian artist Louis Buisseret explores this in a more domestic context, showing a half-dressed woman stepping into the tub, her clothes piled up on the chair. It’s an intimate scene, the still blue bath water an antidote to her crumpled clothes – her reality.
Few artists have explored the escapist qualities of the bathtub quite as fastidiously as Pierre Bonnard who for a twenty year period regularly depicted his partner, Marthe de Méligny, semi-submerged in the bath. For her, bathing – or what should perhaps be referred to as hydrotherapy owing to the cold water used – was a daily ritual that attempted to alleviate various physical and psychological ailments. The bathroom was the “one luxury” that she requested when the couple moved to the south of France in 1920. In The Bath (1925), her body bisects the composition, appearing almost weightless in the blue water filling the tub as if she has been physically – and mentally – unburdened. In another painting from the same year, Nude in the Bath (1925), Marthe’s legs and abdomen just poke into view, as if she has been completely absorbed by the bath – a metaphor, perhaps, for the solace provided by a good, if not rather chilly, dip.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Heir Apparent (2018) conveys the sort of gratification that we have come to associate with a long soak today. On the wall, a pair of hanging masks are perhaps a subtle suggestion that while in the bath he is free from pretence, exposed and bare. For contemporary painter Emily Ponsonby, who focussed on bathing in her 2017 Soak series, bathing is a remedial activity. “Alone and within the security of a metal tub, the body surrenders and softens like spaghetti in a pan,” says the artist, who often paints with a poster of Bonnard’s The Bath in front of her. “When I paint someone in the bath, I’m painting a state of mind, rather than a literal representation of a body cocooned in water. We have cameras for that. I want to capture a feeling that is physically and mentally cleansed of both the past and present, devoid of doubts and released from reality.” Just like in Degas’ pastel series, the face of the bather is shrouded from view in Emily’s paintings – in Blue Tiles (2017) we look at the back of the bather’s head, down the bath, while in After the Bath (2017), the subject bends down to pick up the towel. It’s as if they’re absorbed by inner life, which, as the viewer, we just can’t quite glimpse. The bath, it seems, is much more than a metal tub.
Words by Elizabeth Metcalfe.
Elizabeth Metcalfe is the Deputy Features Editor at House & Garden Magazine.
Top image: The Tub, Degas. Pastel on blue-grey paper, ca. 1885-86, 27½ x 27½ in. (69.9 x 69.9 cm). Courtesy of Alfred Atmore Pope Collection, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT.
Side by side images by Emily Ponsonby. Left: Morning Light, 2017, oil and beeswax on panel, 62 x 52cm. Right: Blue Tiles, 2017, oil and beeswax on panel, 61 x 46cm.
Bottom image: Installation view of The CC Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard at Tate Modern 2019. Photo: Tate Photography.