Paul CÉZANNE | Bathers [Baigneurs]

France 1839 – 1906

c. 1890
oil on canvas
canvas 60.0 (h) x 82.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Baroness Eva Gebhard-Gourgaud 1965
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Given the prevalence of works by much younger artists in this exhibition, it is worth noting that Cézanne was more than fifty years old when he completed Bathers. The artist did hundreds of paintings of bathers over his career. The current work clearly relates to a preparatory work of the same name, Bathers 1890–92, and to another small study dated 1899–1900.1 This was typical of Cézanne’s working method. He produced study after study of the same subject, gradually refining his compositions until he achieved one which appeared to be the summation of them all.

In this work the arrangement of the bathers is brilliantly orchestrated—a complex grouping of foregrounded figures is contrapuntally arranged against another group occupying the middle ground. There is a strong classical echo to the triangular, pedimental architecture of these four foregrounded figures, anchoring the work compositionally. The effect is to create an architecturally interlocking circle of figures surrounding a group of bathers in the water or sitting on the banks. The corporeal presence of the foregrounded figures and the luminosity of their skin tones are echoed in the volumetric forms of the cumulus clouds that loom in the background. We see Cézanne’s technical confidence in the way the terrain has been flattened and the treescape simplified. He uses trees here not for their anecdotal fidelity, but to anchor the composition at key points.

There is an undeniable sense of ritual in this work. Some commentators interpret the scene as baptismal—Cézanne became a devout catholic in 1890—with the figure at left pouring water over the head of a partially submerged bather to his right.2 But it is also clear here that Cézanne mixes the sacred with the profane. There is a celebratory, Arcadian purity which finds its mirror in the compositional structure as a whole, whether it be the way in which light reflects off the facets of the bodies or in which it is refracted off the looming cloud masses. A paganistic, sensual exuberance informs the way in which the figures circle the bathers in the water, which Henri Matisse’s famous The dance 19103 will later recall. (Matisse was a great admirer of Cézanne’s work and owned a number of his paintings.) And it is probably no coincidence that the ‘attendant’ holds a luminous, vulva-shaped towel at the very centre of the composition. Grammatically, the title Baigneurs does not preclude the possibility that some of the participants may be female—the seated figure who is, significantly, adjacent to the towel, appears to be clearly female, for example. Bathers, then, is redolent with meaning. This is a powerfully multivalent work, and along with the later The large bathers paintings of 1894–1905 and 1900–054, is considered to be one of Cézanne’s great masterpieces.

Mark Henshaw

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Held in the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Musée d’Orsay respectively.
  2. See for example Mary Louise Krumrine, Paul Cézanne: the bathers, Basel: Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, 1989, p. 183.
  3. The Hermitage, St Petersburg.
  4. Held in the National Gallery, London, and the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, respectively.