The Large Bathers by Paul Cézanne

The Large Bathers by Cézanne (1907) Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paul Cezanne was born on January 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence.   His father, Louis Auguste Cézanne was the co-founder of a banking firm and Cézanne was brought up in a wealthy and prosperous environment which eventually, on his mother’s death in 1897, resulted in him receiving a large inheritance.  When he was thirteen years of age Paul Cézanne entered the Collège Bourbon, where he met and became friends with Émile Zola. This friendship was important for both of them; for with their youthful romanticism they always pictured themselves having successful careers in the art world of Paris and as we now know their dreams turned to reality with Cézanne becoming a highly successful painter and Zola a highly successful writer.   Throughout his life Cézanne would look back on his childhood and teenage years in Aix when he and his friends would spend many heady sunlit days soaking up the Provencal climate as they would go down for a swim in the nearby Arc River.  Maybe with that in mind, it is not surprising that Cézanne would recall those days pictorially, completing almost two hundred works featuring people, both male and female, bathing, sometimes in groups, sometimes singly, nearly all with landscape backgrounds.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is one of his three larger works entitled The Bathers and sometimes referred to Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) so as to distinguish it from some of his smaller works on the same theme.  This painting is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The other two large works can be found in the National Gallery, London and the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.  It is thought that Cézanne worked on all three paintings simultaneously.   All three were completed during the last ten years of Cézanne’s life and in some ways characterise his move towards abstraction.  This can be seen in the way the faces of the bathers are without any definition and their bodies seem to merge with the landscape.  Look at how Cézanne has depicted the angle of the back of the figure on the left which runs parallel to the tree.  It is almost as if he or she is part of the landscape.  I say “he or she” as are we sure of the sex of these bathers?  There is  little or no narrative to the painting, nothing to interpret, no symbolism although we must wonder a little as to who the two figures are that are seen on the other side of the river and why did the artist add in the swimmer who breaks the surface of the river as he swims past the naked gathering.

This work of art, which Cézanne started in 1897, was not completed until 1906, the year of his death and is looked upon as one of his greatest works.  It was the last of the three large works to be completed.  The painting of female nude figures in a pastoral setting had been done many times before by artists such as Titian and Nicolas Poussin, but their works often harked back to classical mythology, such as the depiction of the goddess Diane and her handmaidens, but in this work by Cézanne there is no mythological connotation.  The figures stemmed from Cézanne’s own imagination and possibly things he remembered from childhood and not from actual observation of models.

The women in some way exude a “goddess-like” aura and almost appear to be on a stage with the trees on either side forming a theatrical proscenium arch.  The bathers seem totally relaxed.  There is a definite calmness about Cézanne’s depiction of this river bank scene. As we look at the painting our eyes focus on three triangular structures.  The two triangular formations made by the groups of naked bathers on each side of the foreground and the central larger triangular structure formed by the leaning trees on each side and the horizontal of the blue-coloured river forming the base of the triangle.  The blue of the river splits the two bands of ochre coloured earth on either side.

Le Nu au Musée du Louvre by Armand Silvestre

These three works featuring the bathers are thought to have been Cezanne’s final delving into the nude figure and his desire to associate human oneness with nature.  We know that Cezanne had a fascination with the depiction of the nude and would use photographs to aid his depictions.  The young French artist Francis Jourdain recounts the tale in his 1950 book Cézanne in which he visited Cézanne at his studio in 1904 and was shocked to discover that Cézanne owned a small art book, entitled Le Nu au Musée du Louvre, which consisted of photographic illustrations of nudes. Jourdain was shocked by it and described it as an affreux album jadis à Paris dans un kiosk des boulevards, (an awful album once bought in a kiosk in Paris boulevards).   The publication contained photographs of paintings and sculptures of nudes from Ancient Greek times up to the modern times.  Le Nu au Musée du Louvre was written by Armand Silvestre in 1891.  He had who also had written a five volume work, Le Nu au Salon.  He justified his work saying that it was to highlight the beauty of the feminine nude.

Cézanne would have wanted this book as it was literally a gold mine of images of the nude female figure and of course unlike live models who would constantly have wanted to move and grumble about having to sit still, the photographs were static and uncomplaining!  The professor of Art History, Theodore Reff, in his 1958 Harvard dissertation, Studies in the Drawings of Cézanne summed up Cezanne’s positive attitude to the use of nude photographs against the use of actual nude models:

“… [Unlike the models, the photographs] never moved or grew tired and more important, they never confronted him with the easily disturbing eroticism of the flesh.  Assimilated to an ideal aesthetic world of canvas or marble, they were neutralised and approachable…”

Of course the main disadvantage was that the photographs were of a single view but along with Cézanne’s sketches, the photographs served both as models of ideal beauty and as an aide-memoire for him when he represented the nude figure in natural settings as we see in today’s featured work.

When I look at today’s featured painting I cannot help but think it is like a preliminary sketch for a later completed painting.  There are many primed areas of unpainted canvas which show up as white patches.  Look closely at the figure in the foreground on the extreme right.  Are we looking at a pair of arms or are we looking at the backs of slightly bent legs?  To my mind we are seeing the long arms of the figure which only just shroud remnants of earlier legs. Look also at the face of the woman seated on the ground in the left foreground.  She has no face at all.  .

Although some would disagree, I believe this is an unfinished work, “completed” in the year he died.  Other say that Cézanne is asking us to use our imagination as to what is going on and does not want to spoon feed us with what we would term a “completed work”.  I prefer to go along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s description of their painting:

“…the painting has the feel of an unanswered question; a testament to the “anxiety” Picasso famously declared it to be the source of his great interest in Cézanne.  The artist left unresolved the startling contrast between the lushly painted landscape and the stiffly drawn, expressionless faces…”

Picasso once referred to Cézanne as “my one and only master” and in his youth the young Spanish painter was believed to have carried a gun, waving it half-seriously at anyone who annoyed him, particularly anyone insulting the memory of Cézanne. “One more word,” he would say, “and I fire.”

At first the three large Bathers canvases were not hailed by the public as masterpieces but Cézanne’s fellow contemporary artists saw the greatness in these last works of the genius.  Matisse commented:

“At critical moments in my artistic adventure it gave me courage; I drew from it my faith and endurance.”  

Cézanne had been out painting in fields near to his home and had been caught in a torrential downpour which soaked him to the skin.  He headed home but collapsed and had to be rescued by a passing motorist.  The next day, he got up to carry on with his painting but later on he collapsed once again.  The girl who had been modelling for him called for help and he was put to bed, which he never left it again.  Cezanne died of pneumonia on October 22nd 1906, aged 67.

On his death the painting I have featured today was bought from Cézanne’s son by Ambroise Vollard.  Vollard was one of the most important dealers and art collectors in French contemporary art at the beginning of the twentieth century and someone who championed the cause of  the then unknown artists such as Cézanne, Renoir, Gaugin and Van Gogh.   It became part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1983.

Finished or unfinished that I will leave you to decide but nevertheless it is looked upon as one of the great masterpieces of art.