The theme of the female bather, with a nude or partially draped figure depicted in an indeterminate setting, was a favourite one of Renoir's from the 1880s onwards. He tackled the subject in various media, with treatments ranging from the monumental Ingresque canvases of his middle-career through to the sculptural renditions at the twilight of his life. Femme nue assisse, the present work, takes its place among the most resolved of Renoir's treatments of the bather subject in sanguine, a medium Renoir favoured not only for its expressive tonal qualities - its ability to be manipulated on the sheet in order to attain the nuance of form that his particular method of modelling required - but also for its association with the art of the eighteenth-century and especially that of Watteau, in whom the genre of the fêtes galantes found a felicitious advocate and from whom Renoir learnt much.
If the lessons of the masters of the eighteenth-century, including Chardin and Fragonard alongside Watteau, taught Renoir rhythmn and harmony, his search for the classical - 'une heure éternelle' as he called it - sent him further back in history in pursuit of Titian and Rubens. In 1903 Renoir spoke of the 'quivers of joy' that he felt on encountering a Rubens, and the timelessness of the subject in the present work - whether the sitter is a goddess or a local serving girl from the Midi is deliberately unclear - displays his debt to earlier art.
Indeed, in his later years Renoir expressed active dissatisfaction with the preference for the 'modern' theme. In rather salty terms he cited Monet's preoccupation with painting 'the time of day' rather than his cherished heure éternelle and Rodin's propensity for making sculptures look as though they had 'armpits that smell'. Ironically, following the turn of the twentieth-century, at the same time as Renoir was forging his classical vision, Picasso and Braque were adopting similarly traditional and timeless subjects - still-life, monumental landscape and figures in interiors - in order to formulate their own revolutionary idiom.