Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Large Bathers: Balance and Tension Between the Sacred and the Irreverent

Paul Cézanne is one of the most celebrated Post-Impressionist artists, regarded as one of the founders of modern art. His work inspired artists such as Picasso and Matisse, who said that Cézanne was “the father to us all”. His Bathers series is considered home to some of his most striking work, and in this article Singulart will analyze what many define as the masterpiece of the series: Large Bathers. The painting was a precursor to the Cubist period, and we’ll be looking at the significance of the artwork and why it is considered one of his most important pieces.

Who was Cézanne?

Cézanne was born January 19, 1839, in the idyllic Aix-en-Provence. Born into a wealthy family, he was able to attend a school that nurtured his interest in art. In 1861 he convinced his father to allow him to move to Paris with his close friend, author Emile Zola. He began studying at the Academie Suisse, but crippled with self-doubt, moved back to Aix five months later. 

He spent time moving between Paris and Aix, comforted by the isolation he could find in the country. Although he is now recognized as one of the greats, he was constantly plagued by his anxiety and bad reviews. After Zola published a novel in which the main character was a failed artist, almost certainly based on Cézanne and his career, they completely cut ties and never spoke again. Cézanne has been quoted as saying “The world doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand the world; that’s why I have withdrawn from it”. 

Cézanne found his artistic legacy during the last three decades of his life. It was during this time he developed his infamous brushstroke technique, having previously used palette knives to produce heavily textured paintings. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not employ the sketch-like brushstroke technique, instead preferring “constructive strokes”; deliberate, considered strokes that were carefully arranged to form geometric shapes. This technique gave definition to his paintings, setting him apart from the dark outlines used by many of his contemporaries.

Large Bathers and Cézanne’s Ouevre

From the 1870s onward, Cézanne’s work focused on bathers, with the ambition to create a harmony between the human form and the landscape. It is believed that Cézanne drew inspiration from his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, in particular from his memories bathing with friends; “a work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art”, Cézanne said. 

Paul Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898
Paul Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898

Although he was uncomfortable with female models, he drew on his vast knowledge of classical and Renaissance art in order to portray the female form. Cézanne was fascinated by the human form, as noted by artist Francis Jourdain in his 1950 book Cézanne. Jourdain was shocked to discover Cézanne owned a book called Le Nu au Musée de Louvre (The Nudes of the Louvre Museum); Jourdain described it as an “affreux album jadis à Paris dans un kiosk des boulevards” (an awful album bought in a kiosk on the streets of Paris). 

In a letter to a friend, Cézanne stated that the aim was to express “what we see and feel through studying nature,” and to “make the public feel what we feel and accept us”. 

Large Bathers’ Cultural Significant

Large Bathers is named because it is literally the largest of Cézanne’s Bathers series, at an impressive 210.5cm x 250.8cm. Cézanne created Large Bathers with the aim that it would be timeless, and not influenced by the painting trends of the 19th century. Cézanne worked on the painting for seven years, up until the time of his death, but it is still believed to be unfinished. There is a tension between the lushly painted background and the expressionless bathers, exemplified by the mysterious figures who can be seen watching in the background. It is worth noting that six of the fourteen figures face away from us, creating discomfort for the viewer.

Cézanne had a certain aversion to working with female models. In Large Bathers, one of the figures on the left is thought to have been based on a sculpture of the goddess Diana, while a figure on the right alludes to Venus de Milo.

Large Bathers has a mystical vibe, but unlike other similar pieces such by Titian and Nicolas Poussin, there are no direct mythological references. The pose of the bathers suggests a constraint which is recognizable in Cézanne’s work. There is nothing erotic about their poses; they simply serve as instruments of his art.

One of the main focal points of Large Bathers is the triangle shapes Cézanne has created. The groups of bathers on either side form two triangles, and the bathers are framed by the canopy of trees forming a larger triangle, which represents a Gothic cathedral in its shape. The composition suggests a tension between the sacred and the irreverent, with almost pagan-like figures appearing near the church that can be seen in the background.

Cézanne’s Legacy 

During their time, Cézanne’s paintings were considered almost ugly in their nonconformity. In 1895, audiences were horrified by a Bathers painting placed in Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. Anti-modernist writer Camille Mauclair stated “Cézanne never was able to create what could be called a picture”.

After Cézanne’s death, an exhibition of his work was shown at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. The retrospective was hugely influential to the avant-garde art movement, leading self-proclaimed Cubist founder Albert Gleizes to write “Cézanne is one of the greatest who changed the course of art history”. 

Contrary to the middling success he enjoyed during his life, Cézanne is now recognized as one of the fathers of modern art. Through his legacy, he managed to influence both abstract art and representational art.

See modern artworks Inspired by Cezanne on Singulart.

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