Baigneur, vu de dos is closely related to an important sequence of small, nearly square bather compositions that Cézanne painted between 1876 and 1878 (Rewald nos. 358-366). Each of these includes at the far left a standing female nude seen from the rear, in a pose nearly identical to that of the present work. Here, Cézanne has excerpted this figure and transformed it into a male bather by cropping the hair, thickening the torso, and accentuating the musculature of the arms and legs. The pictures in this group are all executed with densely packed, diagonal strokes of pigment--the so-called constructive brushstroke with which Cézanne was experimenting at this point in his career. Joseph Rishel has written, "Cézanne's paintings of the late 1870s and early 1880s have an oddly compressed quality, as if produced under controlled but formidable pressure. This is particularly evident in the small, square Bather subjects. Their handling retains much of the quickness and energy of his earlier treatments of the theme, but the effect they produce is neither heroically elevated nor conventionally lyrical. They seem introspective and full of themselves in a very intense, charged way" (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 198).
The figure in the present painting is particularly close in pose and handling to the left-hand bather in Cézanne's Trois baigneuses of 1876-1877 (Rewald no. 360). This canvas belonged to Matisse from 1899 until 1936, and as such, "it has been widely regarded as a major signpost in the history of twentieth-century art" (ibid., p. 198). The rear-facing bather in Cézanne's painting provided the pose for Matisse's own Baigneuse of 1909 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), one of his earliest studies for the monumental Femmes à la rivière (1916; Art Institute of Chicago), and it was also a key source of inspiration for Backs I-IV, Matisse's most ambitious and longest-lived sculptural project (see lot 65). Upon donating the canvas to the Petit Palais in 1936, Matisse wrote to the curator Raymond Escholier, "Permit me to say that this picture is of the first importance in Cézanne's oeuvre, for it is the very dense and very complete realization of a composition much studied by him in several canvases which, although in important collections, are only the studies that led up to this work. I have owned it for thirty-seven years, I know this canvas rather well, although I hope not completely; it has provided me with moral support in critical moments in my adventure as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance" (quoted in ibid., p. 198).
The first owner of the present painting was Père Tanguy, a Parisian color-grinder whom Cézanne met through Pissarro in 1873. By exchanging paint and canvases for completed works, Tanguy was able to assemble a sizable collection of pictures by Cézanne and his colleagues. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Tanguy's small shop on the rue Clauzel was one of the only places in Paris to see Cézanne's work. Degas, Gauguin, and Signac all purchased paintings by Cézanne there, and younger artists like Denis, Bernard, Bonnard, and Vuillard gathered at the rue Clauzel to study Cézanne's compositions. Around 1892, Tanguy sold the present work to Eugène Boch, a wealthy Belgian painter and member of the avant-garde group Les Vingts. Boch was a close friend of Emile Bernard, and at Bernard's urging purchased three paintings by Cézanne from Tanguy. In addition to the present work, these include a six-foot seated portrait of Achille Emperaire (Rewald no. 139) and one of the earliest known depictions of Madame Cézanne (Rewald, no. 217). The dapper Boch is memorialized in a lively portrait by Van Gogh that now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay (de la Faille, no. 462).