In the 1870s, Cezanne began depicting scenes of bathers—groups of men and women lounging, swimming, and standing in and around wooded watering holes. In this work, he focused on the figure of a single young man standing with hands on hips, one foot in front of the other, and eyes downcast. Cezanne admired classical traditions of landscape and portraiture, yet compared with the muscular bodies and idealized proportions of academic painting, this bather appears awkward—both physically ungraceful and psychologically remote. The painting’s unified palette and brushstrokes likewise defy the conventional hierarchy of figure over background: here they are almost interdependent, set apart by the distinct black outline of the bather’s body but also echoing and sometimes dissolving into one another.
The artist began his career as an Impressionist painter, and his work reflects the influence of that movement’s experiments with the optical effects of color. Cezanne, however, was not interested in color’s atmospheric properties, as the Impressionists were, but instead explored its qualities of solidity and space, trying, as he said, “to render perspective solely by means of color.” Whereas the Impressionists painted from life, Cezanne based this bather on a photograph of a man posed in a studio, transferring him in paint to an outdoor scene.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)