In Bathers on the Beach, a watercolour full of luminosity and vibrant colour executed in summer 1913 in Osterholz on the north coast of the Baltic Sea, during his first trip to this part of northern Europe, Heckel depicts one of the favourite themes of the Die Brücke group: the relation of man with Nature. As in his scenes of nudes in landscape settings painted by the Moritzburg Lakes in summer 1909, the compositions of naked bathers enjoying the water and sand of a beach express the painter’s wish to return man to an ideal state of at-oneness with his inner self and the natural environment.
In mid June 1913, after a short stay near Hamburg at the home of Gustav Schiefer, one of the main patrons of the young Die Brücke artists, Erich Heckel and his wife Sidi made a boat trip along Germany’s Baltic coast. The artist was so captivated with the undulating landscape of the outskirts of Osterholz that the couple decided to stay there and rent an old property belonging to a boat builder called Peter Hansen. Heckel left a testimony of this first visit in several letters sent to his mentor of those years, the historian Walter Kaesbach, whom he told of his works, “among them a number of drawings that may perhaps survive.” He also sent him high-flown descriptions of the undulating scenery and rugged coastline that provided a backdrop to his figures: “Naked forms, brilliant yellow, leap about in the blue-black water, while the rocks, blue and darktoned, and the limestone cliffs cast long shadows on the shore.”
This large watercolour — its size indicates the importance Heckel attached to the medium — also evidences a significant transformation in his painting. In this remote northern spot the painter’s work became more melancholic and less optimistic, while his forms grew more geometric and angular.