In this idyllic scene of women and children bathing in a river overhung by trees, O'Conor makes a rare foray into the realm of multi-figure compositions. He seldom included more than one figure in any of his paintings, but here we have no fewer than seven. Bathers subjects were particularly popular with the Impressionists, especially Renoir, Cézanne, and to a lesser extent Pissarro. O'Conor was acutely aware of these precedents, for he is known to have owned prints of bathers by all three artists. By choosing to devote a major painting to the subject, the Irishman was consciously making a personal contribution to this tradition, whilst simultaneously embracing its philosophical subtext - the benefits to be derived from a direct and unashamed relationship with our fellow creatures and with nature.
The dating of the picture on stylistic grounds to the late 1920s is widely accepted. However, it does not exclude the possibility that the work was started earlier and finished later. The highly layered and textured application of pigment suggests a prolonged period of execution, quite possibly spanning as much as two decades. O'Conor may have returned to the painting at repeated intervals in order to refine the composition, the colour harmonies and the poses of the figures. Without the supporting evidence of a date on the picture or a lifetime exhibition record, the history of the making of this painting must sadly remain a mystery. But we can speculate with a little more certainty as to the artist's underlying inspiration.
Before he settled in Paris in 1904, O'Conor led an itinerant existence living variously at Pont-Aven, Rochefort-en-terre, Grez-sur-Loing and Montigny-sur-Loing. With the exception of Rochefort, all these places were well known for their picturesque rivers and bridges. At Grez the River Loing was particularly suitable for bathing, an activity which visiting artists engaged in with relish. Indeed, the libertine atmosphere that prevailed within the artists colony was such that it extended to having models pose nude outdoors. In 1885 the American artist Alexander Harrison caused quite a stir when he depicted three female nudes casually relaxing on the sunny riverback for his painting In Arcadia. A decade later the German painter Jelka Rosen, a resident of Grez and future wife of Delius, converted her garden into an open air studio for nude models to pose in. Even if he was not an eyewitness as such, O'Conor would have been kept informed of such events by his friends Frank and Emma Chadwick, who retained a base in Grez well into the 20th Century.
O'Conor's painting is a summation of these experiences, supplemented no doubt by many others which have not been recorded. In The Bathers he surveys the past from the comfort of his Parisian studio, separated by distance as much as by time. The picture is essentially a souvenir of happier, more carefree times, filtered through his memory and embellished by his imagination. Whether he actually witnessed the specific scene shown in the painting is a question we cannot answer, and one that in any case may be missing the point. The picture's purpose is more to evoke the contentment and fulfilment that are to be derived by entering into close communion with nature.