Bernard was born in Lille and moved with his parents to Asnières and very early in his life showed an interest in painting. He quickly left his studies to join the studio of the fashionable painter, Cormon, at the age of 16. There he met Toulouse Lautrec and became his friend and co-disciple. Two years later he became the companion of Vincent Van Gogh. From a very early age he displayed such independence from the accepted Salon and Pompier styles that Cormon expelled him from his premises.
Bernard was fascinated by all that was new in painting trends prevalent in the 1880s and onwards. He immediately showed himself adept at the Pointillist Style launched by Seurat. He abandoned this early style of painting shortly after meeting Seurat himself and having long discussions with him at an exhibition while moving on to the first stirrings of what was to develop into the Symbolist Style. He therefore went to Pont Aven in Brittany which was attracting all the most radical painters at that time, both academicians and innovators and there he met Paul Gauguin. The influence that Emile Bernard exercised on the early works of Gauguin is now an accepted fact amongst art historians and indeed it was probably Bernard who pushed Gauguin along the path which was to lead him to fame.
Emile Bernard is considered the father of the Symbolist Style since he painted his first synthetic Symbolist work in 1886 before he had even met Gauguin. His Yellow Christ dates from the same year, that is to say three years before that executed by Gauguin The Master of Tahiti. He also initiated a style of divisionism containing arabesques which he started as a direct reaction against Impressionism and this was to form the basis of the form of Art Deco which came fashionable around 1900 and which was reused by the Nabi artists. Although Bernard may not be on the same artistic level as some of his friends, he was nevertheless an artist of great historic importance. The friend of Lautrec and of Van Gogh whose first exhibition he organised in 1893, and of Gauguin and Cezanne whom he recognised early on as a genius, he was at the centre of every trend that was to overturn the accepted norms of art at the dawn of the 20th Century. He corresponded with Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon and Cezanne on a regular basis. Although Bernard showed such great precocious early talent he was to abandon his innovatory style little by little to such a degree that Cezanne was to write about him, “he is absolutely turning his back on theories that he developed in his writings.”
Later in his career, Bernard travelled extensively, above all to the Orient and to Egypt where he painted for the rest of his life in a much more traditional style. Bernard often produced engravings for the most fashionable works of literature of his period – Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, Homer’s Odyssey, The Loves of Ronsard and the poetry of Francois Villon. He designed furniture and was considered an important critic founding an art review magazine called La Rénovation Asthétique. Bernard spent an extensive part of his latter days in Egypt revisiting Paris regularly and one last time revisiting Pont Aven before he returned to his Studio on the Quai de Bourbon where he died in 1941.
The present painting of a Young Female Bather enigmatically and quizzically looking out of the canvas at the spectator, with a shy and almost bashful expression,would seem to be a homage by Emile Bernard to some of his great predecessors. The slight plumpness of the girl might indicate that she is pregnant. She stands apart from all the other bathers located in the middle distance in the pool. Her facial type and rather soulful expression hark back to prototypes made popular by Corot (1796-1875) in the 1840s and he may also have been aware of works by Jean-Fréderic Bazille (1841-1870). What is more than certain is that there is the clear influence of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and of course of his older contemporary, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). The 1890s marked Cezanne’s greatest period of production including a series of Bathers. Bernard was immediately attracted to the subject of the Bathers, producing several small scale sketched copies or derivations from Cezanne’s works in the early 1890s. More than a hint of this appears in the bathing figures in the background of this Bernard composition of Bathers whose sketchier style would seem to indicate that it stems less from his Nabi period than relating more closely, perhaps, to the mid to late ‘90s or, as suggested by Bernard’s son, to 1904. (An attestation on the back of the unlined canvas states in French ‘I certify that this nude was painted by my father, the painter, Emile Bernard, in 1904 and comes from his atelier at the Quai de Borbon in Paris, signed by his son Michel Ange Bernard’). This composition of The Bather therefore represents an important transitory work in the artist’s career before he reaffirmed a more traditional and static late style, and perhaps was intended as a homage to his celebrated predecessors.