A three dimensional rendering of one of the major aesthetic influences in his life, the present work is modelled on Cézanne's Trois baigneuses of circa 1875, a canvas which Moore owned and admired for more than twenty years. Moore considered the work 'perhaps the most prized possession in my home... It hangs in my bedroom and I have looked at it and studied it again and again' (quoted in D. Mitchinson, op. cit., p. 290). Unusual in Moore's oeuvre for being directly influenced by the work of another artist, Three bathers - after Cézanne is testament to Moore's preoccupation in his own work with the relationship between space and form, both in two dimensions and in three, and the unique possibilities these relationships can engender.
Of the seminal group of around eight paintings of bathers executed by Cézanne in the mid to late 1870s (to which Moore's canvas belongs), two others were owned by Matisse and Picasso (R.360 and 365 respectively), attesting to the lasting influence Cézanne's work had on the development of modern art in the twentieth century. Matisse, who donated his Cézanne to the Petit Palais in Paris in 1936, described his Trois baigneuses as having 'sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist'. Moore was equally unequivocal in his admiration for his version of Trois baigneuses and in his estimation of the profound influence the painting had on his aesthetic.
'It's the only picture I ever wanted to own. It's... the joy of my life. I saw it about a year ago (1959) in an exhibition and was stunned by it... To me it's marvellous. Monumental. It's only about a foot square, but for me it has all the monumentality of the bigger ones of Cézanne... Perhaps another reason I fell for it is that the type of woman he portrays is the same kind as I like. Each of the figures I could turn into a piece of sculpture, very simply' (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, New York, 1996, p. 240).
In 1978, almost twenty years after he had first seen the painting, Moore did execute these three figures modelled on those in Cézanne's composition and went on to explore their spatial relationship in three dimensions. 'Having looked so often at our little picture, I felt that I could turn the three bathers into sculpture, and decided one day to prove to myself that I could do so. I spent about an hour, one morning, modelling each of the three figures into plasticine. Later they were cast into plaster and I set them up on a base in the same spatial relationship as they have in the picture. I am sure Cézanne's figures were so real to him that he could have drawn or painted them from other viewpoints. Having made my maquette, I drew the group from the back, the sides, from the front, and from all round. I enjoyed the whole of this experiment. I had thought I knew our Bathers picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years. But this exercise - modelling the figures and drawing them from different views - has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture. This example shows that working from the object - modelling or drawing it - makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure' (quoted in D. Mitchinson, loc. cit.).