The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999
The Bather is one of Cézanne's most evocative paintings of the figure, although the unmuscled torso and arms have no heroic pretensions, and the drawing, in traditional, nineteenth-century terms, is awkward and imprecise. The bather's left, forward leg is placed firmly on the ground, but his right leg trails and carries no weight. The right side of his body is pulled higher than the left, the chin curves lopsidedly, and the right arm is elongated and oblique. The landscape is as bare as a desert, but its green, violet, and rose coloration refuses that name. Its dreaming expanse matches the bather's pensiveness. Likewise, the shadows on the body, rather than shifting to black, share the colors of the air, land, and water; and the brushwork throughout is a network of hatch-marks and dapples, restless yet extraordinarily refined. The figure moves toward us but does not meet our gaze.
These disturbances can be characterized as modern: they indicate that while Cézanne had an acute respect for much of traditional art, he did not represent the male nude the way the classical and Renaissance artists had done. He wanted to make an art that was "solid and durable like the art of the museums" but that also reflected a modern sensibility incorporating the new understanding of vision and light developed by the Impressionists. He wanted to make an art of his own time that rivaled the traditions of the past.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008, 501
Curator, Ann Temkin: The bather is a perfect subject that combines Cézanne's interest in tradition and modernity. The bather had this extensive history in classical art. There's a certain almost timelessness, even though this is a very modern picture. But there's something still very formal, right? Look at the way his two arms are placed so that his hands are on his hips forming these nice triangles between his body and the arms themselves.
He's looking down. He's obviously very introspective. And I think that's quite a modern, typical projection of an artist, rather than being somebody who's maybe daring and extroverted.
When we look at this picture, it's actually very flat, just imagine in your mind a traditional painting from an earlier century. There would be quite a bit of attempt on the artist's part to show the far-off distance behind the characters he's painting.
With this painting, it feels like Cézanne has put everything into the foreground. And it's almost like the figure has been pushed up right to the front of the picture plane.
Certainly one of the reasons Cézanne is so often thought of as one of the great forefathers of twentieth-century painting is that the main concern is the picture surface. So what's more important is its reality as a picture rather than some reality in actual life that the picture is merely trying to represent.