Large Bathers (1894-1906) by Cezanne
Large Bathers (1894-1906)
Cezanne was possibly the single most important modern source for the Classical Revival in modern art - ironically so, given the exceedingly hostile reaction of most of his immediate contemporaries, who regarded his work as crude, bungling and barbaric. He came from a well-to-do bourgeois family and was given a thorough liberal education. Having attended drawing classes in Aix-en-Provence, he went to Paris for the first time in 1861 and spent long periods in the Louvre making drawings of paintings by the Old Masters, a practice which he continued throughout his life. He studied at the Academie Suisse, and tried unsuccessfully to get his work accepted at the Salon. In the early 1870s, through Pissarro, whom he regarded as his mentor, Cezanne was converted to Impressionism and to its style of outdoor plein-air painting directly from the motif, and to its light colour palette - for more, please see: Characteristics of Impressionism. The intensely expressive, romantic character of his early imaginative compositions, which owed much to his love of Delacroix, El Greco and the Venetians, gradually gave way to an increasingly objective and controlled manner. Nevertheless his subject matter remained more generalised and less dictated by transient effects than that of the other Impressionist painters, and his compositions and his brushwork reveal a deep-rooted concern with structure and with classicist forms - a concern which soon led him to develop his own idiom of Post-Impressionist painting across all the genres.
In the late 1870s Cezanne's dissatisfaction with the Impressionist emphasis on the primacy of visual sensations hardened, and his work took on a noticeably more classical appearance. His landscapes of Aix from the mid-1880s, for instance, were composed in the manner of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), and his still life painting revealed his profound admiration for the works of the 18th century master Jean Chardin (1699-1779). It was from this period, when Cezanne was living as a recluse in Aix and returning to Paris only relatively rarely, that his sense of his Provencal identity and his Mediterranean Greco-Roman classicism grew more pronounced, with the Montagne Sainte-Victoire becoming a symbol of all that was enduring and dependable.
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".
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.
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).
The most famous paintings of 'Bathers' by Cezanne include:
- Bathers (1873-7) Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York.
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.
For the meaning of other post-Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION