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Painting Modern Life

Explore how early modern artists forged new directions in painting.

The Bather

Paul Cézanne
(French, 1839–1906)

1885. Oil on canvas, 50 x 38 1/8" (127 x 96.8 cm)

Artist unknown. Standing Model. c. 1860–80

Artist unknown. Standing Model. c. 1860–80. Photograph. Gift of Curt Valentin

Cézanne’s The Bather depicts an adolescent boy mid-step, capturing a fleeting moment in time. The painting is quite traditional in its subject matter—a male figure in a landscape. But unlike traditional painting, Cézanne’s Bather is pensive, even anxious; his body is decidedly unheroic. Set against a barren, ambiguous backdrop, it is hard to tell where the painting takes place and who the person is. Instead of representing a specific place, the painting seems to capture a sense of ambiguity or uncertainty that is typical of the modern experience. The painting does not tell a story or convey an idea; rather, this composition gave Cézanne an outlet for exploring new ways of painting.

Additionally, Cézanne painted from a photograph of a man standing in a studio in a bathing suit rather than from something that he had seen in real life. The act of painting from a photograph rather than life was a decidedly novel technique at the time.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

 The arrangement of the elements within a work of art photograph. The composition is the interplay between the subject, foreground, background, and other elements in the photograph.

Fun Fact!
In 1884, only a year before Cézanne made The Bather, inventor George Eastman developed a method for photographing on film, rather than plates. The technique, which eliminated the need to carry toxic chemicals and cumbersome glass plates, helped make photography available to the masses. Within a few years, it became common practice for painters, including Cézanne, and later Picasso, to include photography as part of their painting process.


Curator Ann Temkin talks about why Cézanne is considered a forefather of of 20th-century painting

Hear a detailed visual description of Cézanne’s The Bather