At the end of 1963, David Hockney traveled from England to California for the first time. Inspired by the sunny clime of Los Angeles, he began painting the image of the swimming pool, which in turn, became one of his most recognizable motifs. The present picture, A Small Sunbather, in certain ways a smaller version of the 1966 canvas Sunbather, depicts a nude male bather lying beside a brilliantly lit swimming pool. Hockney has recalled that this image was inspired by a photograph of a sunbather illustrated in a magazine.
Christopher Knight has written about the prominence of the swimming pool in Hockney's art:
"If there is one image that more than any other is conventionally associated with David Hockney's art, surely it is the image of the swimming pool. There are many reasons for this. He has painted, drawn, photographed, or made prints containing images of swimming pools from the mid-1960s to the present day. His rise to public prominence more than twenty years ago was coincident with the first appearance of this image in his work" (C. Knight, David Hockney, A Retrospective, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 23).
Although the present painting describes a scene of leisure and luxuriance, Hockney himself has stated that he had other intentions when he embarked on the swimming pool pictures. He was primarily concerned with formal issues of the play of light, of capturing in paint infinite patterns of the moving surface of water. Hockney stated,
"I never thought the swimming pool pictures were at all about mere hedonist pleasure. They were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the shimmering two-dimensionality. What is it that you're seeing? For example, I once emptied out my pool and painted blue lines on the bottom. Well now, when the water's still, you see just clear through it and the lines are clean and steady. When somebody's been swimming, the lines are set to moving. But where are they moving? If you go underneath the surface, no matter how turbulent the water, the lines again are steady. They are only wriggling on the surface, this thinnest film. Well, it's that surface that fascinates me; and that's what those paintings are about really" (quoted in L. Wechsler, "A Visit with David and Stanley Hollywood Hills 1987", David Hockney, A Retrospective, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, p. 81).
In A Small Sunbather, Hockney created optical effects that recreate the shimmer of the pool water, by using a combination of curvilinear lines denoting waves and different hues of yellow, violet, and blue representing sunlight on the surface of the water. The picture has an unconventional format, with the figure placed atop an expanse of the swimming pool. Intertwining lines of the waves animate the turquoise water of the pool as well as creating a network of flowing pattern that flattens the picture. Hockney has intentionally left a wide border around the image, which is commonly found in his paintings of the middle 1960s. The artist has explained, "I used borders around an image, from about 1964 to 1967. This wasn't just a framing device. It started off as a formal device" (D. Hockney, David Hockney, New York, 1976, p. 125). The border is part of the structure of the painting, and therefore plays a significant role in the viewing experience of the image. The border emphasizes the painting as image, and deters any viewing of the picture as an illusionistic window.
This image of the Bather could be related to classical renditions of the bather placed in an idyllic background found in Western painting since the Renaissance. The convention is a metaphor not only for the harmonious relationship between the human figure and nature, but also represents a world that is uncorrupted and pure. Knight analyzes this relationship:
"Hockney's pictures of swimming pools are perhaps most revealing in this regard, for they are contemporary adaptations of the conventional literary and artistic theme of the Golden Age. The voluptuous and sybaritic bather is a primary symbol of that classical myth of origin, a myth that speaks of a lost, pastoral Arcadia of peace and harmony, which stands in sharp contrast to the convulsively animated world of history. The image functions as a refusal of the impure world of the everyday, and its use finds its implicit meaning in the gap between those Edenic origins and the crushing realities of contemporary life" (C. Knight, op. cit., p. 38).