Paul Cézanne dealt with the subject of Bathers on several occasions during his long career. Experimenting with the relationship between male and female nudes and nature, Cézanne created a large number of paintings and studies. One of the oldest paintings of The Bathers is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other one with the same title is a part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Due to their monumental dimensions, three paintings from this series are known as The Large Bathers and are located in the National Gallery in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation Collection in Philadelphia.
What is depicted in The Bathers?
The series of paintings The Bathers is one of the series that Cézanne did on this subject. In these compositions, Cézanne presents a complex relationship between a group of naked female figures and the natural environment in which they are found.
The Bathers – Analysis
In the Bathers series, Cézanne approaches a traditional theme in a modern way. In this series, Cézanne translates the language of the old masters into a new visual code that is considered the beginning of the later radical practices of the European avant-garde.
About Pastoral Painting
Pastoral painting has a very long tradition in European art. This painting is based on the concept of an idealized experience of nature. In addition to the idealization of the space itself, the object of idealization was also the stay of people in such an environment. Numerous paintings representing mythological and allegorical themes often incorporated a pastoral element. This harmonious concept of nature was often based on the famous region of Arcadia. This historical region, part of the central Peloponnese, had an important place in Greek mythology. As a space ruled by the god Pan, it was a theme for the poets of classical Greece and later in the Renaissance. In the history of painting, the long unbreakable connection between painting and poetry was based on the principle from Horace’s Ars Poetica – Ut pictura poesis. Numerous important examples of narrative painting with pastoral elements, on the principle of Ut pictura poesis, were painted on the basis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Mythical representations of bathers in European Renaissance painting were created by Palma Vecchio, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and many others. Rembrandt’s painting Diana Bathing with her Nymphs with Actaeon and Callisto is an example of a dramatic representation of a simultaneous narrative. The left segment of the composition depicts the punishment of Actaeon. He was punished by the goddess Diana who turned him into a stag, while the discovery of Callisto’s pregnancy takes place in the right part of the composition. The bathing scene is therefore part of a wider complex narrative.
In Palma Vecchio’s painting Bathing Nymphs, the same theme is presented in a harmonious relationship between naked female figures and nature. This composition is characterized by a highly sensual depiction of female figures. The position in which these figures are presented in Vecchio’s painting is completely opposite to the way Cezanne presented his female bathers. Deviating from this very tradition of depicting the female body, Cézanne introduced modernity into this traditional subject.
In Cézanne’s work, the theme of Bathers is present from the mid-1870s until the very end of his life. At the beginning of his painting career, Cezanne often stayed in the Louvre and studied the works of the great masters. Researchers often claim that it is precisely in this series of paintings that Cézanne’s dedication to the study of classical sculpture can be seen. Cézanne writes in a letter to Émile Bernard from 12 May 1904 – The Louvre is a good book to consult, but it should be only a means. The real, prodigious study to undertake is the diversity of the scene offered by nature.
Since it is known that Cézanne did not paint these pictures from a model, it opened the way for researchers to recognize potential traces of classical or Renaissance forms in the painted figures. The Bathers painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art belongs to the early phase of Cézanne’s exploration of this theme. The composition consists of the smallest group of figures compared to the latter pictures. However, by isolating individual figures or their poses, the continuity of certain forms is noticeable.
The painting The Bathers, which is part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, conveys in a striking way Cézanne’s idea of experiencing sensation as a totality. In this case, there is an inversion in the domain of color and structure of the composition. Cézanne rejects the plain division of colors and the creation of autonomy by the clear separation of the human body from the surrounding nature. Thus, green and especially blue, as dominant in the surrounding, were found on their bodies. With the blue line, Cézanne even further shapes each of the figures. The inversion related to the structure of the composition is reflected in Cézanne’s decision to present the figures with their backs to the viewer. In contrast to the traditionally organized composition with several naked figures that surpass each other in sensuality and exposure to the viewer, Cézanne’s figures are the embodiment of solid and architectonic forms.
The Large Bathers
The Large Bathers painting in the National Gallery in London brings a specific expression of the late phase of Cézanne’s work. The painting shows female figures in a landscape, mostly with their backs turned. Among the figures shown is a white cloth, which is one of the many allusions to a Renaissance painting. It is known that Cézanne was inspired by the Greek sculptures of the Louvre when it comes to the form of his figures, which is particularly noticeable in this picture. One gets the impression that Cézanne collaged different forms from the area of his Greek classical models. Although they form a more than harmonious group, the interaction between the figures themselves is absent. Action in the conventional sense is also non-existent. The intriguing solution that Cezanne applied here is that he did not present water. The presented landscape is dominated by land, coastal vegetation, and tall trees as well as the sky with clouds but not the water surface. The blueness of the composition still persists in its omnipresence. Cézanne makes extensive use of blue in the construction of figures. Blue is also an important component of the color definition of painted plants. In this painting, Cézanne repeats his frequent procedure when it comes to coloristic and perspective inversion. Traditional painting of the sky involves the use of lighter tones in order to convey the depth of the composition and the distance of the scene. On the other hand, intense darker tones were used with the aim of achieving the effect of proximity. In this painting, Cézanne places the bright clouds in the foreground, while the dark blue segment of the sky is the one that closes the composition.
The painting The Large Bathers from the Barnes Foundation collection is similar in composition to that in the National Gallery in London. However, the vertical forms are more pronounced in this painting considering that the two figures in the foreground are standing in a frontal position. This composition, as well as the previous one, is characterized by the absence of representation of the water surface.
The most monumental of this series is the painting The Large Bathers, which is located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although unfinished in the domain of compositional structure, this painting is the most complex in the series. This complexity is reflected in the number and position of the represented figures in relation to the landscape, then in the very structure of the landscape as well as the represented architecture in the distance. On a horizontal basis, the composition is divided into two almost equal parts. The first or lower part consists of three parallel fields – the first and last represent the ground while the central field represents the river. The second or upper part, which is slightly larger, represents the sky. When it comes to vertically organized structures, there is a kind of regularity that rests on the triangular form on which Cézanne built this painting. In the left segment of the painting, the triangular shape is defined by a line that starts from the feet of the figure who stepped, then continues to the head of the same figure, and ends with the outstretched hand touching the ground of the crouching girl. The central triangular structure consists of three squatting girls touching the ground with their hands. The right corner segment of the picture is opened by a crouching girl with an outstretched arm, the line goes to the highest point of the triangle in the girl’s head leaning against a tree. This triangle is closed at the lower point of the back of the crouching girl at the very end of the composition. A special dynamic to this composition is provided by the element of architecture in the distance shown in the very center of the picture. The looming tower of the church is located at the junction of two horizontal segments of the composition, the one representing the ground and the other representing the sky. The vibrancy of the scene is enhanced by the appearance of a figure that does not belong to the group of bathers. In the very center of the composition is painted the figure of a man in motion with a horse next to him. The small triangular shape in the very heart of the composition is made up of three points placed in the heads of two crouching bathers and in the head of a man walking from the other side of the shore. In this painting, Cézanne incorporated the female body forms that he painted years ago. This is how we recognize the characteristic figure of a woman lying on her stomach, crouching figures, a stepping figure, or a figure leaning against a tree. With characteristic architectonic lines in this composition, Cézanne built solid forms based on the complementarity of colored fields. The triangular forms that were mostly generated by the figures in the composition are surpassed by the one that comes from the landscape. The massive trees placed in the left and right corners of the composition by connecting in the central part create a kind of arch that covers the entire structure.
The Bathers painting series, which presents nude female figures in nature, consists of five paintings. Due to their monumental dimensions, three paintings from this series are known as The Large Bathers and are located in the National Gallery in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation Collection in Philadelphia. The remaining two pictures of The Bathers are in the Art Institute of Chicago and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of the more famous paintings from Cezanne’s male Bathers series are in the Saint Louis Art Museum in St. Louis. Louis, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.