A Grand Vision: Cézanne’s Large Bathers

Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Cézanne worked on The Large Bathers, now owned by the Philadelphia Art Museum, during the last 8 years of his life.  He did about 200 paintings of bathers, and another one in the National Gallery of London is also called Large Bathers. Its French name, Les grandes baigneuses, pays homages to the grandest of Cézanne’s compositions of this subject, which may be his final statement of the theme as well.  To me it seems truest of an Arcadian dream, as witnessed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent exhibition.

The composition was clearly important to Cézanne in the search to find his truth. Through making art, he explored, subjectively, that which is true and everlasting in nature and in human existence.  In his early paintings he used heavy brushwork, but as time went on he thinned the paint and applied it tentatively, as if his vision was changing. Planes of various colors overlap, but outlining shapes brought transient visions back to clarity. Cézanne worked with the Impressionists in the 1870s and had painted with them near Paris, but returned to his hometown, Aix-en-Provence in the early 1880s.  In Aix, he mixed modernism and classicism, searching to add something solid and permanent to an Impressionist vision of color, while painting some of the same scenes over and over again. 

Cézanne, Riverbank, c. 1895 National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection
Location is imprecise, but it is the type of river scene which inspired him
The Roman name for Aix-en-Provence implied natural baths or springs

Of course truth to Cézanne was tied to nature, where he sought refuge. Cézanne was equally tied to Virgil, whom he regularly quoted in Latin while painting among the rocks, trees, waters and paths that still contained vestiges of ancient Roman pastoral life. Romans founded Aix-en-Provence, called Aquae Sixtiae Silluviorum, in 123 BC, at the site of natural baths or springs, and fought a battle at the site of Mont Saint-Victoire 20 years later.  Cézanne grew up with a very classical education of Latin and Greek at the École Bourbon in Aix.  We note that this painting and others are modern but seem as classical as paintings by Poussin, who also often included landscapes similar to Mont Saint-Victoire is his compositions.

In Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, the nude women stand, kneel or sit, almost in symmetric formation, creating several triangles within the larger triangle of trees. They are enclosed within the trees just as an altar is enclosed within a church.  The curved roof of a Gothic church could provide a sacred space, but here it is nature’s roof, the trees.  The women seem to be performing a ritual, as if making a picnic, but we can’t tell what they do.   A river and two patches of scorched brown earth run horizontally, suggesting true-to-life distance. Further back, trees and church steeple point upward.

Usually a church is the highest point, the center of a composition, but here it is subordinated to nature. Note, that in the background that the shape of the church and the trees is the same.   The larger trees, the foreground trees which frame the women, don’t join at the top, and a central tree in the distance points to an opening, very suggestive of the upward ascent to the divine.  The church is within this framework and a part of this ritual space where these women play a role and act out a ritual, but not the means to an end. The trees, i.e.nature, have replaced the church as the shelter and the vessel to carry them to divinity.

One woman’s finger points to the water where there is a swimmer, a detail too deliberate to be ignored and obviously something Cézanne wished to emphasize. The painting may suggest death, as the artist himself knew he was approaching the end.  (In Greek and Etruscan paintings, swimmers diving into the water are thought to represent the diving into the afterlife, although I’m not sure if Cézanne was familiar with such paintings.)  Beyond the swimmer, two figures have reached the other side.  When we get back to main scene, we see that two or three women on the right will be diving soon. The other nymphs are acting, making preparations or staging a dress rehearsal, without clothes, for their ultimate transformation, the passing from earth to afterlife.  Note they are calm and at peace, which makes me think Cézanne must have been at peace when he died.

Cézanne worked on this painting for about 8 years and it is the culmination of so many studies of bathers he did. (I was told that his models were actually bathing men, but he made them into women.) He lacks interest in correct anatomy and sensuality, but was deeply interested in meaning which he explored by connecting the relationship of the parts to the whole. Their nude forms take on geometric constructions, and motifs of the circle, triangle and cone are present, even in outline, here. He left open patches on parts of their bodies, as he sometimes did, but it’s also possible the painting is unfinished. This painting  represents Cézanne as an artist on a quest to understand humankind in the order of things, whose place in strong, but humbled next to the greatness of nature.                 Detail photos come from this website:            http://www.artble.com/artists/paul_cezanne/paintings/the_large_bathers

We note that in painting and others by Cézanne, there is balance of verticals and horizontals, warm and cool tones, sky and earth — the heavens and the earth. Cezanne is also both classical and modern in style and composition, as he takes from the past to point to the future.  Again, that pointing finger reminds us of the journey from the world of the past to the world of  the future, just as it reminds us that death is a natural process of life.

Though Cézanne may not have been pleased with much of his art while here on earth, he has received an immortality in the end.  Picasso, Matisse and others said he was the single greatest inspiration on the course of 20th century art, perhaps because of his ability to capture the essence over detail.  The Grand Bathers is the essence of living life attuned to nature.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Dreaming of Arcadia in the Modern World

One of the first ‘pastoral‘ paintings(not in the exhibition) was
The Pastoral Concert, 1509, by Titian and/or 
Giorgione, originator of  the pastoral, where landscape is on par with figures. Shepherds and musicians are frequent in this theme.

Good things always end, including summer and a chance to see how the greatest modern artists painted themes of leisure as Arcadian Visions: Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, ends Labor Day.
The exhibition highlights 3 large paintings:  Gauguin’s frieze-like Where do We Come From?…, 1898, Cézanne’s Large Bathers, 1898-1905 and Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1907-17.

Each painting was crucial to the goals of the artists, and crucial to the transitioning from the art and life of the past into the 20th century. These modernist visions actually are part of a much older theme descended from Greece and written about in Virgil’s Eclogues. Nineteenth-century masters were very familiar with this tradition from the 16th-century painting in the Louvre, The Pastoral Concert, by Giorgione and/or Titian.  Édouard Manet’s infamous Luncheon on the Grass of 1863 was probably painted to fulfill that artist’s stated desire to modernize The Pastoral Concert.   Those who think artists throw away tradition, think again; the greatest artists of the modern age did not.       

Arcadia was originally thought to be in the mountains of central Greece. Virgil described a place where shepherds, nymphs and minor gods who lived on milk and honey, made music and were shielded from the vicissitudes of life.  With its promise of calm simplicity, Arcadia was a place of refuge. Renaissance scholars writers and painters re-descovered it; Baroque painters developed the theme further, and 19th century artists glorified it because the Industrial created yearnings for a simpler life. (Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a small focused exhibit on Arcadia at the moment.) Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of 1876, An Afternoon of the Faun, had this theme, too, and was followed by Claude Debussy’s musical interpretation after that poem.

But, even Virgil had warned, that things are not always as they seem.  The exhibition’s signature pieces by Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse reflect harmonious relationships between humans and nature, but tinged with loss. The best of Arcadian visions give equal importance to figures and landscape, as these artists do.  Other 19th century painters, whose work is shown for comparison, include Corot, Millet, Signac, Seurat, and Puvis da Chavannes.  It is interesting that the museum did not include Auguste Renoir’s Large Bathers, 1887, in the PMA’s own collection, probably because that idealized scene does not have anything foreboding.


 Paul Gauguin, Where do we come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?(detail of left side), 1898
From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is so large that it must be seen in real life.

Artist Paul Gauguin escaped France and settled in the the south seas, Tahiti, where he searched for his version of Arcadia.  It was the first time I had seen Gauguin’s Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?  No reproduction does justice to its color, details and beauty. Twelve five feet wide and four feet high, it must be seen in person to adequately “read the painting.”  Composed of figures familiar from other Gauguin paintings, this allegory makes us think deeply about the meaning of life via Gauguin’s favorite figural types, the women of Tahiti.  He depicts youth, adulthood and old age and treats each phase as a moment of discovery and passing to the next, but we may end up with more questions than answers. 

Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the
culminations of many studies he had been doing of bathers since the 1870s.

The acoustical guide to the exhibition quotes Paul Gauguin who said that Paul Cézanne spent days on mountaintop reading Virgil. Cézanne’s soul was always in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and the connection to that past was in his blood, coming from a very classical childhood education of Latin and Greek and hiking through old Roman paths with friend and future novelist, Émile Zola. Even though the bathers have no sensuality, Cézanne’s Large Bathers is a painting which gives exquisite beauty to its concept.  To me, it stands out as the most important painting in the show.  An article links Cézanne to thoughts of death, Poussin and several poets who wrote of the territory surrounding Aix as Arcadia. This painting is perhaps the most Arcadian modern painting of the exhibition, although there are no shepherds, no musicians and no men. While it picks up the dream of humankind living simply in nature, under its beauty and its bounty, one woman points to the river, suggesting a place where these complacent bathers will ultimately go.         

The design of The Large Bathers perfectly balances traditional space and compositional structure with the goals of modern art. I always knew how much I loved this painting, but now I know why. The exhibition gave me much new insight and appreciation to fill an entire blog about this painting.   Matisse’s painting is in the same large room of the exhibition, but the message is less subtle.     

Matisse spent ten years revising this painting, 8’7″ by 12’10”  Art Institute of Chicago
He completed Bathers by a River around 1917 

Bathers by a River is also very large and, as expected, even more abstract.  Matisse worked on the painting for 10 years and changed it, as his ideas and conceptions changed. Noticeable is the lack of color and empty features of the faces.   He paints verticals, a suitable balance to the curves, but a snake appears in front and in the center, which can be seen as a dire warning.  World War I was happening at the time he finished it. His earlier paintings of bathers were far more joyful and colorful.
Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
 is approximately 6’8″ x 9’9″

It was a complete surprise to see Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, also a very large painting.  The tropical landscape with an elephant and lions is included in the same room of monumental paintings. Rousseau drew exotic plants in the botanical gardens of Paris and he painted them in a simplistic style with unexpected, evocative juxtapositions.  He was a visionary before the Surrealists.  His woman reclines in a traditional pose on a seat-less sofa, as a dark-skinned horn player and jungle animals appears.  Music, repose, luxury of nature are typical Arcadian themes, and it is a joy to see it in the same room with the three signature paintings of the exhibition. 

Nicolas Poussin, The Grande Bacchanal, c. 1627, from the Louvre, Paris

To understand all these connections, the curator included a painting by the most representative painter of the Arcadian tradition, Nicolas Poussin. (New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosted an exhibition, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, 4 years ago.)  Poussin was a Baroque artist who was thoroughly engrossed in a classical style with themes taken from ancient writers. His painting The Grande Bacchanal, 1627, on loan from the Louvre, has beautiful women, musicians, a Silenus and even baby revelers, with darkess approaching the landscape. Each of the early modern artists featured in the exhibition were familiar with Poussin’s style and sources, as well as Watteau and Boucher who painted pastoral themes in the 18th century.

Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings, Music and The Dance, are abstract and modern but thoroughly a part of the pastoral tradition.  Athough the exhibition does not show any of the colorful compositions Matisse did in the first decade of the 20th century, those paintings have tons of color and are steeped in the pastoral tradition.   (I’ll need to take trip to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Collection with another large version of Cézanne’s Bathers and Matisse’s famous The Joy of Life.)

A sketch of “Music” from MoMA  links back to Poussin’s The Andrians, with dancers, a lounging woman and a violinist.  This painting is not in the exhibition..

Quotes from the poet Virgil’s pastoral literature line the walls.  We witness how various artists of the 19th and 20th centuries interpreted his poetry in drawings, paintings, etchings and illustrated books.  The exhibition ends with Picasso, Cubists, Expressionists and little-known Russian painters of the 20th century.  Although not always inspired by Virgil or Ovid, these paintings can be linked to the desire for a bucolic life of simplicity and harmony in nature.  
I was awed to see the Robert Delaunay’s City of Paris, 1910-12.  Delaunay famously painted the Eiffel Tower in a Cubist jumble of colors and shifting perspectives.  That symbol of modernism was only a little more than 20 years old at this time.  This giant canvas of Paris also has three large nudes.  They are the Three Graces, just as Botticelli and Raphael had painted them.  Delaunay’s vision of Paris includes the past and the present, but the nudes of the past are actually seem more central to this composition of shifting triangles, circles and planes of colors.  If anything, Cubism reminds us of life’s impermanence. 
Robert Delaunay, City of Paris, 1910-12, is 8’9″ x 13’4″
Finally, at the end we see Franz Marc’s Deer in Forest, II, from the Phillips Collection.  Here the humans are gone and only animals are in the forest.   The exhibition is very thoughtful and reflective, and I thank Curator Joseph Rishel for giving us so much to ponder.  It is one designed not only to make us only look art more closely, but we must also think more deeply.  
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016