Félix Vallotton – The Bath. Summer Evening (1892-1893)

There have been so many nudes throughout art history, from the statues of Ancient Greece to Ingres’s memorable Odalisque and Jenny Saville’s larger-than-life paintings. Most often than not, the nudes have been of women as seen by men, making me wonder whether the beauty resides in the creation or in the object of desire – the women themselves.

I find that it gets rather boring, in time, seeing nude after nude. Beauty loses its punch once it’s present everywhere.

… which is why I love this Félix Vallotton painting so, so much, as it defies any preconceived assumption I may have had about nudes and women’s bodies, in general.

Felix Vallotton - The Bath. Summer Evening (1892 - 1893) 01
Félix Vallotton – The Bath. Summer Evening (1892 – 1893). Oil on canvas. Kunsthaus Zürich

Vallotton intended The Bath. Summer Evening to be a satire of the bourgeoisie idling its days away around a modern day fountain of youth, but behind the thin veil of irony, as often is the case with comedy, we get a refreshing glimpse of truth — the female body presented in its diverse, non-idealized forms, with all its idiosyncrasies.

Notice, for starters, the unusual lack of sexual tension. These are bodies, flesh and bones, young and old alike, with saggy breasts and loose skin, unconcerned with how ridiculous they look. And why should they be concerned? They seem utterly content, splashing away at the pool on a hot summer evening. Slouched, squatting, lounging, standing, these women lack any self-consciousness or pretension, and display their bodies as purely functional instead of alluding to sexual fantasies.

Don’t get me wrong — their poses are still contrived. That is especially true for those in the foreground. The second woman from the left looks as if she’s in the grip of an existential crisis — one cannot tell whether her body is showing the front and the backside at the same time. Next to her, another woman seems to be holding a little black cat or some furry animal. You’d think she’s using it as a sponge, but her pointed finger informs us that we’re witnessing a didactic lesson — perhaps it’s a swimming class. To the right, it gets even more bizarre. One woman holds her hands up as if they were paws and she glances down at the woman next to her, who’s squatting neck-deep in very shallow water, looking rather uncomfortable.

Farther back, to the center, is my absolute favorite vignette: a brunette gingerly descends the stairs into the pool, her arms wrapped around herself in an embrace, so enraptured that she seems to be walking straight out of a meme. Now that’s self-love.

The painting is full of quirky, individualistic scenes like these which make the viewing intensely pleasurable, since it takes a long time to run out of new things to discover or question. (I, for one, still haven’t figured out why the body of the second woman on the left is so contorted)

And, once again, notice the lack of sexuality here. It’s so unusual given all the body parts exposed. In fact, the most sensual element in this painting seems to be the sinuous path crossing the meadow, pink in its fleshiness. Our ladies, on the other hand, are as pale as ghosts. 

I find Vallotton’s depictions exhilarating. Sure, his intentions weren’t the most noble, considering that he wanted to poke fun at these bourgeois women. But humor ends up individualizing them to an extent that I do not see with most other nudes. It is also humor that liberates these women and gives them license to be their unapologetic selves. So let them eat cake — they’ll have the last laugh.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. You never disappoint, Gabriela! I love your choice of painting and commentary. What I also find interesting is that some women do not feel comfortable bathing in the nude, even though they are in the company of other women. The contorted body of the second woman on the front left does give the impression of being “in the grip of an existential crisis.” A perfect depiction, in my opinion, of the vulnerable woman in a world where men still make the rules.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m so glad you liked the painting, Rosaliene. Your interpretation is a little different from mine – you see the female body as a political statement here. I see it more as inhabiting an experience which is unmediated by politics or aesthetics, but connected directly to the senses. That’s living the dream! Even if said dream is a nightmare for the woman you mention, there’s this exhilarating freedom in the range of emotions and attitudes being expressed in this painting.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hah, what an amazing painting. And yes, even in the background there is so much happening in individual vignettes that they are as many stories that can be told as there are minds watching this scene.
    Maybe the woman second left, has seen herself after years in the reflection in the water and is suddenly filled with despair or maybe she is just trying to find a piece of jewelry that fell of from her ears. 🙂
    Great share Gabriela !
    P.S. I loved the last passage. Yes, maybe a place where we are more unique and memorable than our naked self is in our ironic and funny tragedies and idiosyncrasies .
    Cheers. Keep Posting!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      Look at you, Rahul, your imagination wheels are already spinning! That’s what I love about the painting: there’s so much to discover, so much to imagine. I really like your “woman losing an earring” hypothesis. I remember seeing that (or something similar) on Keeping Up with the Kardashians once. I was zapping through the channels and there was KK looking for a diamond earring in the ocean, while on an exotic vacation. The crisis was averted eventually, after her boo retrieved it. (I know, the suspense was killing you)

      But yes, humor will save us all.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. David says:

    My first thought when viewing this painting was, was this a common activity in France at the time where a large group of women would gather to bath in the nude, or this part of the satire.

    I find it to be an interesting painting with, as you pointed out, numerous questions. It is fun to examine and re-examine, similar to the fun of examining H. Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delites, but with a much different theme.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      That’s a great question. I think they bathed naked, yes. Vallotton tried to stay true to the facts when depicting the attitudes, attires and hairstyles, even if he went overboard.

      There was this big movement in Germany at the end of the 19th century called Naturism – the idea behind it was that taking your clothes off in nature would liberate you. It soon spread to other countries as well. Several artists I have been reading about were part of it, exercising naked outdoors, irrespective of weather, and with both genders mixing.

      All this happened after Vallotton painted his picture, but I think it reflects the attitude of those times.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. David says:

    I remember hearing about Naturism at some point in my college days. We had a similar movement in the U.S. in the last half of the 1960s. I don’t know what the movement was called but its participants were called hippies. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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