Painted in 1904-1905, Edvard Munch’s Badende gutter takes as its subject a group of young bathers, most likely seen on the shores of the artist’s beloved summer refuge, the small Norwegian fishing town of Åsgårdstrand. The artist had first visited Åsgårdstrand in the summer of 1889, renting a modest fisherman's cabin overlooking the Oslofjord on the edge of the town. Captivated by the beauty of this part of Norway, Munch returned to the area repeatedly over the following twenty years, immortalizing its landscapes in some of his most haunting and remarkable paintings. “Have you walked along that shoreline and listened to the sea?” he wrote. “Have you ever noticed how the evening light dissolves into night? I know of no place on earth that has such beautiful lingering twilight…to walk about that village is like walking through my own pictures” (Munch, quoted in S. Prideaux, Edvard Munch: Behind ‘The Scream’, New Haven & London, 2005, p. 122). With its strange play of light on the water and unique atmosphere, Åsgårdstrand became a place of existential mystery within Munch's imagination, taking on a mystic symbolism in which the undulating seashore, waves and sea embodied the eternal rhythms of time and human experience.
Badende gutter was most likely begun during the summer months of 1904, at a time when Munch’s summer residence at Åsgårdstrand functioned more than ever as a sanctuary from the pressures of a grueling exhibition schedule and the artist’s increasingly tormented mental health. Writing from Åsgårdstrand in 1903, he explained the positive effects his sojourn was having on his well-being: “I sail, paint, swim, and am well – here I drink little alcohol” (Munch, quoted in R. Heller, Munch: His Life and his Work, London, 1984, p. 183). Although the quiet village had become inundated with ever larger numbers of fashionable holidaymakers from the capital, these summers were peaceful times for the artist, during which he spent his days painting, swimming – a pastime he had adopted for its calming therapeutic effects – and sunbathing. “The sun baked us all day and we let it do so”, Munch’s friend, the writer Christian Gierløff recalled of the summer he spent in the artist’s company in 1904. “Munch worked a little on a painting of bathers, but for most of the day, we lay, overcome by the sun, in the sand by the water’s edge, between large boulders, and we let our bodies drink in all of the sun they could. No one asked for a bathing suit; the only thing that lay between us was July’s warm breezes” (C. Gierløff, quoted in J. A. Clarke, Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 2009, p. 176).
It is this sense of freedom amidst the Norwegian landscape that Badende gutter seeks to illustrate, focusing on a quintet of boys amongst the weather worn boulders that dot the edge of the water, their nude bodies suggesting they have just emerged from a bracing swim. Four of them are gathered in a huddle on the shore, their forms bleeding into one another in their proximity, perhaps looking at something they have discovered in the sand or playing a game. To the left, a single figure stands shyly outside the group, simultaneously together and apart from the rest of the boys. His separateness is heightened by the self-conscious shielding of his nude body, a gesture which reveals Munch’s innate understanding of the depth of emotion that could be conveyed through subtle changes in body language. With this simple choice of pose, the artist imbues the standing figure with a tentative self-awareness and vulnerability that stands in sharp contrast to the childlike innocence and freedom of the rest of the group.
In contrast to his earlier, angst-filled works, there is a delicate sense of vitality and light in the way Munch depicts this idyllic summer scene, heightened by the nuanced colors and curving rhythmic lines of the landscape, a formal characteristic he believed could be used to express the invisible energies and life forces of nature. Most significantly, Munch's palette became extraordinarily vivid and his brushwork freer and more dynamic during the opening decade of the twentieth century, a transition seen here in the broad, sweeping strokes of deep blue used to depict the water, and the swirling gestural marks of warm pinks and oranges that make up the shoreline. While this liberation from a descriptive mode of rendering nature was also being explored concurrently with Matisse and the Fauves in Paris, it was Munch’s psychological approach to painting the landscape that would exert a great influence on subsequent generations of artists, most notably the German Expressionists.