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

Paul Cezanne produced hundreds of paintings of bathers during his career. He typically produced many studies of the same subject, gradually refining the composition. Here, a group of figures gathers around a swimming hole or the banks of a river. The figures are shown in different poses – standing, sitting or about to leap into the water. The foreground figures form a triangular shape, with the two outside ones leaning in towards the centre. One of the central figures gestures up to the sky leading our eye towards the billowing clouds. The other bathers are gathered around the water source. Nude bathers are a traditional way of depicting figures in the landscape and have been a popular subject for artists since the Renaissance.

The warm flesh tones of the bodies contrast with the cool colours of the sky and vegetation. The interplay of these colours contributes to the dynamic nature of the painting.

Cezanne became a devout Catholic in 1890, the same year this painting was completed. Some commentators interpret this scene as baptisimal, with the figure on the left pouring water over the head of the bather in the water next to him. This interpretation creates further discussion when considering the gesturing of some figures towards the heavens and the pine trees, which look like church spires, pointing up towards the sky.

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