The Bathers Painting Analysis Essay

Artist unknown. Standing Model. c. 1860–80. Photograph. Gift of Curt Valentin

Cézanne’s The Bather depicts an adolescent boy mid-step, capturing a fleeting moment in time. The painting is quite traditional in its subject matter—a male figure in a landscape. But unlike traditional painting, Cézanne’s Bather is pensive, even anxious; his body is decidedly unheroic. Set against a barren, ambiguous backdrop, it is hard to tell where the painting takes place and who the person is. Instead of representing a specific place, the painting seems to capture a sense of ambiguity or uncertainty that is typical of the modern experience. The painting does not tell a story or convey an idea; rather, this composition gave Cézanne an outlet for exploring new ways of painting.

Additionally, Cézanne painted from a photograph of a man standing in a studio in a bathing suit rather than from something that he had seen in real life. The act of painting from a photograph rather than life was a decidedly novel technique at the time.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.


A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).


A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.


The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.


The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.


Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.


The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.


The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.


Fun Fact!
In 1884, only a year before Cézanne made The Bather, inventor George Eastman developed a method for photographing on film, rather than plates. The technique, which eliminated the need to carry toxic chemicals and cumbersome glass plates, helped make photography available to the masses. Within a few years, it became common practice for painters, including Cézanne, and later Picasso, to include photography as part of their painting process.

Cezanne had exhibited only very rarely since 1877, when he showed sixteen canvases at the third Impressionist exhibition, but in 1895 he at last had a major one-man show in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in Paris. This was not a critical or popular success, but painters of the avant-garde and his old colleagues such as Pissarro hailed him as a great master. Masterpieces from this late period include: The Boy in the Red Vest (1890) Man Smoking a Pipe (1890-2), Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5), The Card Players (1892-6) and Lady in Blue (1900).

During the remaining years of his life his prestige continued to grow. Painters and writers came to see him; articles were published about him. He was honoured with a special retrospective at the Salon d'Automne in 1904, and then again after his death with a huge memorial show in 1907. It was through this sequence of exhibitions that the younger generation of modern artists fell under the influence of his work.

Cezanne's reputation as the 'father' of modern art was virtually unassailable by the time the First World War broke out. Because his work eluded easy classification it could have meaning for, and be claimed by, artists and critics of widely different persuasion. But for those committed to classical values in art, he was the perfect subject, not least because so many of his reported sayings turn on his admiration for the greatest visual artists of the past, on the relationship between his painting and theirs, and on the necessary balance between perception and conception in the work of art. "There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other."

Cezanne, however, was no slavish imitator of Greek art: he could not abide the dry academicism of J.A.D.Ingres or Jacques-Louis David, and instead stood for an innovative, personal interpretation of classicism. (Compare this with the views of another modern classicist, the Italian Giorgio de Chirico - see Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914).

The modernist Emile Bernard (1868-1941) was in the vanguard of this classicist interpretation of Cezanne. So was the theorist Maurice Denis (1870-1943) - since the turn of the century an extremely influential exponent of a classical aesthetic. A formalist approach to Cezanne's work was consistently applied by Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Juan Gris (1887-1927) and other leading members of the Cubist group, and also by the Purists. But one of the most extreme statements of the classicist position is found in the essays on Cezanne by the writer and art critic Eugeni d'Ors (1881-1954), the principal theorist of Catalan Noucentisme and a major force behind 20th century Catalan art. In a richly illustrated monograph published in Paris in 1930, at a period when d'Ors's thinking had taken on a hard-right complexion, he insists that Cezanne's art has little to do with the subjective anarchy of Impressionism, but everything to do with "order", "composition", "rationality", "perfection". His final chapter, first defines the classicist as a "man of culture and civilisation", before concluding that Cezanne's work "is the very definition of classicism".

Analysis of The Large Bathers Series (1894–1906) by Paul Cezanne

The Large Bathers series - the most influential example of figure painting of the turn of the century - consists of three similar pictures of female bathing groups - one in the National Gallery, London; one in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and one in the Barnes Foundation, PA. Cezanne seems to have been working on all three at the time of his death. The bathers are called 'large' simply to distinguish it from Cezanne's many smaller paintings on the same subject.

These three paintings constitute Cezanne's personal interpretation of the long established tradition of depicting female nudes in the landscape, popularized by artists such as Giorgione (Sleeping Venus, 1508), Titian (Venus of Urbino, 1538), Correggio (Jupiter and Io, 1533), Poussin and others.

Cezanne depicted the theme of the bathing party many times over several decades. The subject apparently had its source in his memories of bathing with his male friends as a youth in Aix, but it became an obsessive preoccupation towards the end of his life, culminating in the three monumental Large Bathers (1894-1906: London and Philadelphia).

This whole sequence of Bather paintings had an enormous influence on younger vanguard artists - in particular, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque - for whom Cezanne was the modern incarnation of the Great Tradition. Cezanne told Emile Bernard that he longed to do "a Poussin done again entirely from nature and not constructed from notes, drawings and fragments of studies. At last a real Poussin, done in the open air, made of colour and light", but that the "endless difficulties of finding men and women who would be willing to undress and remain still in the poses I had decided upon", of transporting a huge canvas to the outdoor site, and then of uncertain weather, had, not surprisingly, obliged him to postpone his plan. ("Une conversation avec Cezanne", Mercure de France, 1 June 1921)

Although Cezanne's Bather paintings emulate many famous classical and Renaissance works of art which depict complex groups of male or female nudes outdoors, Poussin does seem to be a significant source for all the Large Bathers. The frieze-like arrangement of the figures, the rhythmic succession of triangular shapes into which they are ordered, and the use of the trees and of bands of grass and water to articulate the space and control the composition, are clearly reminiscent of Poussin's method of composing his landscapes. But the colour, lighting and energetic, sketchy handling are, of course, the result of Cezanne's lifelong experience of working outdoors. The picture as a whole realises the synthesis of nature and art which was his goal.

Although most of the Old Master depictions of female nudes in the landscape were taken from classical myths, Cezanne avoided the use of direct literary sources, preferring to focus his attention exclusively on the harmony of the figures with the landscape, as expressed in the combination of solid forms and precise architectonic structure. Note the repetition of geometric motifs, including triangles, circles, cones and cylinders.

NOTE: (1) Cezanne's use of geometric motifs as pictorial building blocks is especially evident in his landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and the Bibemus quarry in Provence. See also, in particular, the following paintings: The Hermitage, Pontoise (1881, Von der Heydt Museum); The Bridge at Maincy (1879, Musee d'Orsay); View of Gardanne (1885-6, Barnes Foundation, PA); Pigeon Tower at Bellevue (1888-92, Kunsthalle, Basel). (2) In addition, his use of interlocking patches of colour to create form and space is visible in works like Village Road (1879-82, Private Collection); Roofs (1898, Private Collection) and Rocks and Trees (1900, Barnes Foundation, PA).

Like he did with his Provencal landscapes and still lifes, he built up each of the Large Bathers slowly and methodically, with orderly patches of colour simultaneously representing form and the effects of light. His imaginary nudes, with their timeless grandeur and earth tones, are as firmly rooted in their natural surroundings as the rocks, undergrowth and stone houses of the landscapes of his native Provence.

In the Large Bathers at the National Gallery in London, for example, the rear leg of the girl on the left plants the line of the tree trunk firmly on the ground, her head merges into the bark, and the ochres, blues, pinks, greens and white of the composition are closely derived from the earth, sky, sunlight, leaves and opalescent clouds. The same brushstrokes and flat areas of paint are used throughout.

In short, the figures are beautifully harmonized with their setting, as if trees, sky and human skin were all composed of the same substance. This concern with harmony, with enduring forms, and with the overall balance of the picture, was at the centre of Cezanne's classical legacy to modern art of the new century. Curiously, this legacy inspired both abstract art (like Cubism) and representational art (like classical figure painting).

Pictures of 'Bathers' by Cezanne

The most famous paintings of 'Bathers' by Cezanne include:

- Bathers (1873-7) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Bathers (1874-5) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
- Bathers at Rest (1876-77) Barnes Foundation, PA.
- Five Bathers (1877-8) Musee Picasso, Paris.
- Three Bathers (1879-82) Petit-Palais de la Ville de Paris.
- Bathers (1883-5) Private Collection.
- Four Bathers (1888) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
- Bathers (1898-1900) Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland
- The Large Bathers (1894–1905) National Gallery, London.
- The Large Bathers (1898–1905) Museum of Art, Philadelphia.
- The Large Bathers (1895–1906) Barnes Foundation, PA.

Meaning of Other Modern French Classical Paintings

For analysis of other French modernist works, please see the following:


• Two Nudes (1906), MOMA, NY.

• Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) MOMA, New York City.

• Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920) Paris.

• Large Bather (1921) Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.

• Two Women Running on the Beach (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.


• The Mechanic (1920) National Gallery of Canada.

• Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921) Museum of Modern Art, New York.

• Nudes against a Red Background (1923) Kunstmuseum, Basel.

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