In 1894-1896, Pissarro painted a dozen canvases depicting female nudes seen both singly and in groups. These represent his only sustained exploration of the nude form in his entire career. The present painting, which depicts a lithe young woman viewed from behind, is the sole interior scene in this group. The remaining canvases all depict nude or partially nude figures bathing in a woodland stream (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1057-1058, 1062-1063, 1101-1108; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Private collections). The paucity of nudes in Pissarro's oeuvre stems largely from his difficulty in finding models in the small, rural towns where he spent much of his career. In July 1893, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien, "I have also prepared several compositions of peasant girls bathing in a clear stream under a shade of willows. What hampers me is the impossibility of getting a model, otherwise I could do things which would be new and rare" (quoted in C. Lloyd, Camille Pissarro, Geneva, 1981, p. 120). The next year, he painted two scenes of a clothed woman washing her feet in the river and then worked up a nude version of the same composition in his studio (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1060-1062). In 1896, he reported to Lucien that he had resorted to posing himself for his paintings of bathers. Only once, Lucien later remembered, was Pissarro able to persuade an itinerant gypsy to pose for him at Eragny, and even she failed to return after the first sitting. John Rewald has suggested that she may have been the model for the present canvas (op. cit., p. 140). The strong imaginative component of Pissarro's bather scenes is reflected in their idealized, non-specific imagery. Richard Thomson has written, "Pissarro, in determinedly taking up the bathing theme, was less representing observed daily life than following a stereotype for nineteenth-century landscape painters such as Millet, Daubigny, and Corot, adopting an existing iconography for such subjects" (Camille Pissarro: Impressionism, Landscape, and Rural Labor, London, 1990, p. 90).
The figure in the present painting is shown alone in a realistically articulated interior, her nude form softly illuminated by light from a window. Her hair is pinned up to reveal the nape of her neck, which lends her an element of vulnerability, and her chin is lowered in a posture of shyness or contemplation. Pissarro also depicted this figure in a large pastel drawing on pink paper (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; see T. Maloon, op. cit., p. 177). The year after he painted the present scene, Pissarro incorporated a figure in the exact same posture into two closely related bather compositions (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 1107-1108; see Christie's, New York, 10 May 1994, lot 46). In one of these, she holds a towel in her left hand; in the other, the towel is wrapped around her waist, slipping down at the left to expose the curve of her hip and buttock. The latter example was included in Pissarro's one-man exhibition at Durand-Ruel's gallery in April-May 1896, where it met with great acclaim. The critic François Thibault-Sisson wrote, "I know of no contemporary artist capable of rendering the nude en plein air so masterfully and of swathing it in such subtly luminous caresses as M. Pissarro in his Bathers" (quoted in J. Pissarro and C. Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, op. cit., p. 699). Renoir himself reported to Lucien shortly after the opening of the show, "I only exhibited one Bather, which went over very well; Miss Cassatt congratulated me" (quoted in ibid., p. 699).