Bonnard painted the female nude on several occasions while he was affiliated with the Nabi movement during the 1890s, but it was not until the following decade that he began an ongoing series of female nudes seen in the bath, a theme he would pursue with inexhaustible variations to the end of his career. One important thread running through these pictures is the model, Marthe de Méligny, born Maria Boursin in 1869. Bonnard met her on a Paris street in 1893; she had taken such pains to erase her family's past that Bonnard did not learn her real name until 1925, when they finally married after cohabiting for nearly three decades. Obsessed with her health, Marthe had many peculiar habits, including a compulsion to bathe frequently.
"The activities that surround bathing show Marthe engaged in steady, rhythmic and repetitive acts relatable to the body and its care--washing, scrubbing, drying--which place such emphasis on the dexterity of the hands that the figural poses are almost entirely determined by it. Often, a hand will reach to a foot to tie the body into a giant Möbius strip, a solipsistic knot of self-absorption that is charged with the tactile quality of bodily contact and frank in the invitation to intimacy. The self-absorption is, of course, an apartness. But the prolonged, extended, unhurried activity only apparently excludes the beholder, who waits and watches and can imagine a closeness amounting to an identification with the never-aging, painted woman" (J. Elderfield, "Seeing Bonnard," Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 45).
By 1908 Bonnard had largely discarded the muted tonalities and intimiste realism he had carried over from his Nabi phase, and adopted an intensely atmospheric and Impressionist palette. Indeed, by around 1925, when the present work was painted, Bonnard had arrived at a personal manner of using high-keyed tonalities that goes beyond even Monet's late explorations into color. The artist seems bent on taking Impressionist color to a state in which flesh and objects nearly dematerialize in radiant, all-pervasive light. The present painting is composed mainly of such hot tones: pinks, reds, orange and yellow, relieved only with sparse strokes of pale blue, which denote the barest hint of cool shadow in a room resplendent with sunlight and reflections.
Bonnard is no less inventive in his use of space. The almost exclusive use of hot color tends to flatten the space into horizontal and vertical bands. The modeling in the figure provides some depth, as does the diagonal line of the lower shelf on the wall. However, it is the viewer's eye that reads the various elements in the picture, one in front of the other, that establishes a recognizable sense of three-dimensional space. The placement of the mirror on the rear wall, noticeable only because of Marthe's cropped reflection within it, is a familiar device in Bonnard's compositions, and lends the illusion of a deeper space than actually exists in this small room.