OIL PAINTING: The Bathers, 1849
The fragmentary character of The Bathers composition creates a Mannerist sense of disturbance. A quality which also distinguishes Rejlander's large composite photograph The Two Ways of Life. The juxtaposition of the foreground statuesque figure with the romping girls behind with their wet unbound locks, coupled with a tension between idealizing and individualizing tendencies, accentuates the overall claustrophobia of the image. The central figure is reminiscent of the Venus de Milo and Ingres's Valpingon Bather, but the coiffure, skin color and body shape have been fashioned to suggest the effects of modern costume. Predictably, some critics thought Mulready incapable of transcending the life-room, arguing that his style was cramped by a miniaturist approach, as if he were working in watercolour or crayon rather than oil. Unlike so many other nudes of the period, this work is not based on a literary source, although the subject recalls the standard bathing scenes of Diana and Actaeon, Musidora, and Sabrina and her Nymphs. Mulready's anonymous bathers seem to embody the genius loci of the landscape, and are nymph-like in their playful attitudes and animal vigor of movement. Standing proudly aloof from their antics, the principal figure seems an almost surreal urbane interruption, introducing a hint of artful eroticism into what is otherwise a communal scene of unselfconscious bliss.