The Bather was the most controversial painting that Montreal artist Prudence Heward (1896–1947) produced in her life. It stands as evidence of her commitment to portraying female subjects with an unflinchingly unidealized approach. The sitter’s identity is unknown, Heward not having named her in the title, and we do not know whether the artist knew her, other than as a model.
Unlike many of Heward’s paintings that were critically lauded when first exhibited, this work received harsh reviews. The artist’s subject in this painting sits in an unflattering pose, her shoulders hunched while she looks out at the viewer. That the unidealized subject caused anxiety in viewers of the time indicates that Heward had produced a work that challenged notions of how women should be represented in early twentieth-century Canadian painting.
Critics tended to single out The Bather as an example of the modernist direction of contemporary painting. This was not necessarily a compliment. When faced with European modernist art at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, many Canadian critics had hostile reactions, and some commentators were still suspicious of modern art in the early 1930s.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Prudence Heward: Life & Work by Julia Skelly.