Cézanne devoted over two-hundred paintings, watercolours and drawings to the theme of bathing men and women.
He started working with this subject in the late sixties and carried on developing it until 1906, sometimes taking several years to finish the largest paintings.
As the compositions evolve, the descriptive elements disappear in favour of construction. The stocky figures become the members of a rigorously ordered pictorial assembly and not the representatives of corporeal beauty.
The Three Bathers at the Petit Palais are arranged in a wooded area where a wide ray of light passes through, reflected in the water. The slightly oblique and regular strokes submit the forms to the structure of the image. Blonde, redhead and dark, the figures are part of a pyramidal composition which is clearly demarcated by two trees forming an arch. The use of a nearly square format, which is found in several small format versions, reinforces the impression of density and abundance which was felt by Matisse, a great admirer of this painting.
The first collectors to grasp the scope of the pictorial revolution to which Cézanne subjected his bathers were in fact painters.
Thus Matisse, who donated the Three Bathers to the Petit Palais, considered this “very dense and very complete” composition to be very important. He had acquired it in 1899 from Ambroise Vollard. The dealer had organised the first exhibition of Cézanne’s work in Paris four years earlier. It was not until Matisse donated this work in 1936 that a composition with bathers entered a western European museum.