Paul Cézanne’s The Great Bathers of 1906 is considered his great masterpiece. There are several versions but the most beautiful in my opinion is the one kept at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. Together with the version of the National Gallery in London, my city, which I adore and which I pass by whenever I have the opportunity.
And The Great Bathers is the largest painting ever created by Cézanne and one of the culminating works of his career. He combines his passion for color and an atmosphere linked to early 1900s France. And it achieves the goal of the Impressionist group: to make their art mature and complete, like that of the great museums of that time.
The great bathers of Cézanne. The subject of the work
At the beginning of his career as an artist Cézanne had a very strong and sometimes violent temperament. Many of his early works in fact include themes of suffering or violence. However, something changes around 1870, when it begins to undergo the artistic influence of impressionism. From that moment on, his works began to include more and more the people and landscapes he knows and discovers around him.
However, a theme that I will never give up during all his artistic activity is precisely the group of nude figures immersed in a landscape. Developed through a thousand different techniques: oil, watercolor, drawing. The theme is very often referred to as the “bathers” since most of the time it deals with female figures near a shore.
Initially, the female figures in the works are slightly erotic. Subsequently they become almost an exercise in style. Most of these works are small in size, except those of the last decade of his life, including the work preserved in Philadelphia.
There are three main paintings of Cézanne’s The Great Bathers in large dimensions. The other two are at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania and the National Gallery in London. Cèzanne begins these two versions as early as 1895 but as often happens with his works he returns and returns until 1906, the year of his death.
In fact, one of the characteristics of Cèzanne’s work is precisely the fact that he returns and returns to the works, putting them aside when he wants to stop and painting very slowly.
Cézanne’s Great Bathers of Philadelphia are thought to be an exception and may have been entirely built in 1906, possibly remaining unfinished.
The atmosphere of the opera
Of the three versions this is the largest but also the one with the most serene atmosphere. The brushstroke is very subtle and the whole work is characterized by complementary colors. In fact, women with beige and brown colors integrate very well into the landscape and with the blue of the sky and water. It almost seems as if women are part of the natural landscape, thanks to the shades of color of the trees, the ground and their skin.
This need and concern of Cézanne for the harmony and balance of the works will become central to the artists who will see his works. And this will become, together with other abstraction characteristics of the image, one of its most important inheritances.
The great bathers of Cézanne. The details of the work
The female nude While
still a student Cézanne made several study drawings of the nude female figure. however, he never creates works later thanks to the help of models in flesh and blood. In fact, it is said that, due to the fact that he lived in a small and very puritanical French town, he himself is opposed to realizing with models from life.
Instead, he based his figures on other sources: the great masters of the past, his student drawings and several photographs. This choice not to use models and therefore not to analyze the detail of human anatomy perhaps also explains the non-detailed representation of women.
An example is the woman on the left in the foreground. In fact, her image derives from a marble Venus exhibited at the Louvre in Paris since the end of the 19th century. A sculpture that Cézanne knew well and that he uses as a model of his drawings as a young man and in this work.
The characteristic of the trees in this work is the fact that they take on two roles in the work. On the one hand they look fragile because the branches are quite thin. On the other hand, however, they seem resistant, as if they bend without ever breaking. This is thanks to the composition and colors chosen by Cézanne. Thanks to the predominantly brown tone but also made with blue and green brushstrokes, the trees integrate with the sky and water.
The two groups of women
The two groups of women to the right and left of the work are distinguished for several reasons. The main one is the number of figures in the group. On the right, in fact, the group seems more united with a higher number of elements. On the left, however, we see only six figures.
These groups of women on the shore are not far from Cézanne’s memories as a boy. In fact, as a boy, he had the habit of spending time swimming and playing with friends on the shore, among them there was also the famous writer Emile Zola.
The landscape in the background
The background of the work is characterized by a city landscape. Beyond the river, in fact, buildings stand out in the background. This landscape, however, does not disturb the composition due to the choice of colors. In fact, Cézanne uses the same nuances and manages to bring together nudes, the natural landscape and the city landscape in his work.
The serene and peaceful movements
Cézanne’s mature works are distinguished from his young ones by one main characteristic. the movement of the figures. In fact, in his early works the movement seems rapid. In works such as Cézanne’s The Great Bathers, however, the movement is majestic and serene, peaceful.
The careful and studied brushstroke
The pictorial ideal of Impressionist painting is to obtain the image through quick brushstrokes. The works are in fact made outdoors. Often these are landscapes that Impressionist painters want to capture the shape and evolution of light over time.
Here all this does not happen. In fact, even though he is close to the Impressionist painters, Cézanne prefers to spend time in works like this one. His brushstroke is slow and the choice of colors is done in search of balance. Every line and every nuance is studied so that it interacts better with the previous and the next. For example, in this work the bathers are outlined with precise lines and dark brushstrokes but the general idea is that of delicate contours.
The great bathers of Cézanne. The composition of the work
In this work the composition counts together with the color more than any other element. In fact, Cézanne is a master in creating compositions through the geometry of shapes and vertical lines that seem natural to the eye, but which are actually very studied.
For example, in The Great Bathers of Philadelphia the image suggests a theatrical composition. The figures of the leading women are in the foreground. These are surrounded by an arch formed by trees that frames the scene. A large curve that integrates with the curves of their bodies. This large arch gives the composition a feeling of serenity. The girls are protected and we have a privileged vantage point, while we watch them spend their time freely.
Finally, the vanishing point is on the background landscape beyond the shore, which is naturally integrated thanks to the colors in the general composition.
The approval of others is a stimulant that is sometimes good to be wary of.
Paul Cézanne. The artist’s story
Born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, a small town in southern France, Cézanne studied law and then devoted himself to art. At the beginning of his career he has great difficulties in pursuing his art, but around the age of 50 he becomes very rich. On the one hand, when his father dies, he inherits his fortune. And on the other hand, his works begin to be understood, appreciated and bought. So he spent the last 20 years of his life painting and developing his vision of art.
Over time he was nicknamed “the father of modern art” because he became a central and significant figure for painting between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to being a reference point for Picasso’s cubism and abstract art.
Cèzanne’s life is mainly divided between Aix-en-Provence and Paris, where he comes into contact and is part of the Impressionist movement. One of his greatest friends is the colelga artist Camille Pisarro.
However, what distinguishes the Impressionists from Cézanne is the desire to combine the freshness of color and brushstroke of this new art with the works of the great masters of the past. In fact, Cézanne manages to unite the two paths and even if he works isolated for most of the time, he nevertheless becomes a reference for the progressive painters of the time. He will die as a great artist in his town in 1906, the year in which The Great Bathers of Filadelfia was made.
Cézanne will have a very strong influence on progressive painters and artists such as Braque and Picasso in the early 1900s. all this in particular after one of his exhibitions organized in Paris in 1907. Among the various artists influenced by his art there is also the great English sculptor Henry Moore who greatly admires the composition of his works and the representation of the human figure. Moore loves Cézanne’s works so much that he decided in the 1960s to buy a small version of Cézanne’s The Big Bathers and hang it in his bedroom.
Cover: Paul Cézanne, The great bathers, 1906, oil on canvas, 208 × 251 cm, Museum of Art Philadelphia