Marthe Boursin was the subject of most of Bonnard’s nudes from the time he met her in 1893. It is said that Bonnard saw a young woman alighting from a tram in Paris, followed her to her workplace (where she sewed artificial pearls onto funeral wreaths) and persuaded her to leave her work, family and friends. They were together until Marthe died in 1942. They did not marry until 1925. Marthe was extremely petite (barely 1 metre tall) and in all his paintings of her remained the youthful figure of his memory. They lived together in rural France.
Marthe was obsessed with washing, and Bonnard took advantage of this subject, which proved as variable and fascinating for him as the constant changes in the weather. He would sketch her in the bathroom, often working a few feet from her, which accounts for the extraordinarily close viewpoint of this work, which was made in the studio. The painting is carefully structured, with the figure’s legs set open, under which the oblique lines of the floor rush towards the wall.
Bonnard’s interest in the subject matter and compositional devices of Japanese Prints, is reflected here in the subject of a woman performing intimate toilette activities within a confined space of shapes and patterns, the cropping of the figure, and the interesting use of pattern.
Areas of light and dark are balanced rhythmically across the painting. The light rectangle top left, the towel in centre and light rectangle bottom right create a diagonal of repetitions counterbalanced by the diagonal of the leg and the lines on the floor. The curves and countercurves of the body and the table upon which the foot rests contrast with the enclosing geometry of the background.
The lack of eye contact conveys a sense of secrecy and voyeurism. The gestural movement of the arms, towelling the lower leg seems to capture a moment in time, but this is a carefully designed composition painted either from memory or from a sketch.
Bonnard would have seen a major showing of Degas’ nude bathers at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1866, and taking up this theme pursued it until his death. He explored the subject in prints before turning to painting. The origins of this pose lay in his earlier lithograph The tub of 1894 showing Marthe crouched in a tub washing herself.