Large Bather (1921) by Pablo Picasso
Analysis of Neoclassical Female Nude Painting based on Parthenon Sculpture

Pin it

"Large Bather"
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Large Bather (1921)


Picasso's 20th-Century Classicism
Analysis of Large Bather
Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso


Name: Large Bather (1921)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Classical female nude
Movement: Classicism
Location: Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of works by
neoclassicist artists like
Pablo Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Picasso's 20th-Century Classicism

Pablo Picasso is acknowledged as one of the greatest 20th century painters, due largely to his co-invention (with Georges Braque) of Cubism - probably the most challenging form of abstract art of the modern period. However he was also closely associated with various forms of naturalism - see, for instance, his masterpiece Boy with a Pipe (1905, Private Collection) - and made a major contribution to the Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30). For more details, please see: Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

His most famous neoclassical figure paintings include: Two Nudes (1906, MOMA, NY), Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris), Woman in White (1923, Metropolitan Museum, NY) and Two Women Running on the Beach (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris).

NOTE: Picasso's classical works owe a debt to figure paintings by Paul Cezanne, like The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) and Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900, J.Paul Getty Museum, LA).

Analysis of Large Bather by Picasso

This is dated 1921 on the back of the canvas, and was probably painted in Paris after Picasso's return from Fontainebleau in September. It was acquired by Picasso's dealer Paul Rosenberg, and quickly became well known through reproductions (for instance in Pierre Reverdy's Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1924).

Large Bather is one of relatively few paintings by Picasso in which the figure is well over life size, and because she is crammed into a space which seems barely large enough to accommodate her, the effect of monumentality is greatly increased. Indeed her physical presence looms so powerfully that it is almost oppressive and claustrophobic. Various explanations for Picasso's obsession with gigantic, swollen human forms have been given - Olga Koklova's pregnancy in 1920-21, and recurrent dreams he had had as a child in which limbs swelled and retracted irrationally and frighteningly. But the works of art he had recently been looking at may be a more significant factor. For instance, it is hard not to believe that this wonderful figure painting was not directly inspired by Greek sculpture - namely, the massive headless figures of the "Three Fates" from the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens (in particular the upright figure), or the huge statue of Demeter from Cnidos: the unusually crisp folds of the drapery in the painting imitate the drapery of these sculptures. (Picasso had spent three months in London in 1919 while he was working on his designs for the ballet Le Tricorne and would have seen all these figures in the British Museum.) The sense of massive size and cumbrous weight is equally potent in some of the greatest fresco paintings from Herculaneum and Pompeii (such as the "Herakles and Telephus" in the Archeological Museum in Naples, and the great cycle in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii), for in these the brightly-lit life-sized bodies of the women push out from flat backgrounds. Picasso must also have been impressed by similar effects in the great fresco cycles of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) that he saw in Rome.



Renoir (1841-1919) and Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) were modern artists who interested Picasso greatly after the war, for, like him, they approached the classical tradition in an inventive spirit as a resource that was still alive and rich with meaning. Large Bather owes much to the monumentality they sought in their representations of the female nude as a kind of earth-goddess. For at one level that is what the imagery of his painting alludes to - the female nude as the traditional symbol of nature and fertility. The sense of warm earthiness is increased by the soft Renoiresque modelling of the bather's body, and its hot, luminous colour glowing against the steely grey drapery.

However, comparison with the works of Renoir and Maillol instantly highlights the great gulf that lies between their vision and Picasso's: there is none of the uncritical sensuality of Renoir revelling in his dream of a sunny Arcadia inhabited by willing, buxom girls; there is none of the architectural firmness or the physical self-confidence of Maillol's women. For this woman who offers her body to us looks awkward and lethargic, and her far-away expression suggests apathy. The effect of the painting is not only physically overbearing but also sad and mournful. As with Seated Woman (1920, Musee Picasso, Paris) we sense an elegaic, nostalgic meaning.

NOTE: Picasso's fellow modernists also participated in the Classical Revival. Fernand Leger produced works like: The Mechanic (1920); Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921); Two Sisters (1935); Nudes against a Red Background (1923); Giorgio de Chirico produced Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) and Song of Love (1914); Carlo Carra painted Renaissance-inspired figurative still-lifes such as The Drunken Gentleman (1916).

The allusions to the classical tradition demand the spectator's recognition, but it is only the outward shell of that tradition, manipulated and distorted, not its moral core, that is retained. This suggests that it was actually the difference between the present and the past that preoccupied Picasso. Did he perhaps feel that the health, sanity, equilibrium, harmony, and so forth, which classicism was traditionally supposed to enshrine, could not have any real meaning in the post-war world? Was he using the classical tradition in order to express this conviction, through the irony of the comparisons he had deliberately set up? Whatever the answer to these questions, it seems evident that the painting has a profound expressive content; it is not straightforwardly aesthetic.

Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso

La Vie (1903) Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) MOMA, New York City.

Guernica (1937) Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid.

Weeping Woman (1937) Tate Modern, London.


• For the meaning of other classical-style female nudes, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.