Cézanne admired classical treatments of the nude by Renaissance masters like Titian, Michelangelo, and sought to continue that tradition. However,
since he worked slowly and was uncomfortable with female models, he concentrated on imaginary scenes in sylvan settings.
After being steered towards it by Camille Pissarro, Henri Matisse bought this painting from Ambroise Vollard who, in turn, had acquired it directly from Paul Cézanne. Matisse could ill afford to spend money on other artists' works at the time, but was so moved by this piece that he signed a promissory note to Vollard for 1,200 francs in December of 1899. He paid this debt off in installments.
Over the years, Three Bathers remained an immense inspiration and affirmation to Matisse. When he donated it to the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in 1936, he wrote this in a letter to art curator and author Raymond Escholier (1882-1971) on November 10 of that same year:
In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage...I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless think it is my duty to tell you so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.