"If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more," Pierre-August Renoir commented to Ambroise Vollard, the dealer who represented both artists. "It is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas" (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas, Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 10).
In the last two decades of Degas’ career, bathers were among the artist’s favorite subjects, second only in frequency to his studies of dancers. What may appear to have been competing interests in the dancer and bather actually contributed a remarkable unity in the overall profile of Degas’ late oeuvre. On one hand, the dancers represent Degas' engagement with a public spectacle governed by august traditions and the rigorous discipline of a great art form; on the other, the bathers reveal Degas' experience of a most private encounter, in which he observes the exposed sensuality of womanhood in an intimately shared environment.
There is a mysterious sense of secrecy in his domestic bathing scenes, in which the women are almost always seen from behind, their faces averted or otherwise unseen. Degas depicted his bathers in both standing and seated poses, but in either case the center of attention is almost always the woman's angled back. Even such discretion does not mask what may amount to a simmering undercurrent of sexuality, a tenuous sense of longing—wishfully voyeuristic, it may seem, and thwarted, we may presume—giving rise to feelings Degas must have struggled to hold at bay through a strict adherence to his aesthetic ethos of objectivity and a dedicated and persistent application to the discipline of his craft. Treating the nude by means of the bather subject appears to have provided Degas that measure of detachment he required in order to work well, and moreover appealed to his growing sense of historicism, as he contemplated a tradition extending back to Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, through Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn, and even deeper into the past to the vase painting and sculpture of classical antiquity he so dearly loved.