Before swimming came into popularity as a pastime there was sea bathing, a practice that traces back to the 1600s but which really took off during the Victorian age, when the advent of railroads allowed fast and easy passage to the seaside in many European countries and the American coasts. While adults tended to wear clothes for such bathing, at least in mixed company, children were given a bit more leeway with regard to their bathing costume. It was not uncommon for young children to bathe sans habillement—that is, without clothing. While occasional prudish laws and mores cropped up before then—e.g.Wikipedia states the following: “For example, in the 16th century, a German court document in the Vechta prohibited the naked (meaning everything exposed) public swimming of children.”—it wasn’t until the 20th century that the prevailing tastes of the West deemed it necessary for children to don clothing while at public beaches. Thus, several artists of the era captured children frolicking nude at the seaside, one of the few places where this was still allowed in public. Perhaps these painters were drawn to these scenes because they recalled something of the Classical Age that the Victorians and 19th century Europeans were so fascinated with. A few painters, most notably Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, dedicated nearly their whole career to these beach idylls.
Bouguereau’s little bathers are just beginning to shed their clothes: