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 MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Cézanne based his bather on a studio photograph, transferring the posing model to an outdoor scene in the painting. He admired classical traditions of landscape and portraiture, yet compared with the muscular bodies and idealized proportions of those traditions, this bather appears both physically ungraceful and psychologically remote. The painting’s palette and brushstrokes likewise defy conventional compositional hierarchies: here, rather than the figure standing out from the ground, the two are almost interdependent, set apart by the black outline of the bather’s body but also echoing and sometimes dissolving into one another.
Gallery label from 2019
In The Bather, Paul Cézanne depicts an adolescent boy mid-step in a watery landscape. Though the male figure was among the most traditional artistic subjects, the way in which Cézanne represented the young figure in his painting broke with precedent. His bather appears pensive, even anxious, his body soft, slightly out of proportion, and decidedly unheroic. He is set into ambiguous, semi-abstract surroundings that offer no firm sense of place. And like his surroundings, the bather himself seems anonymous. By stripping his painting of specificity, Cézanne conveys a sense of the ambiguity or uncertainty that for many people typified the experience of modern life.
The Bather is not allegorical; it does not tell a story or convey an idea. Instead, the composition became an outlet for Cézanne to explore new ways of painting, to loosely apply paint and develop his composition out of visible gestures and brushstrokes. It reflects his modern sensibility, influenced by the new understanding of vision and light developed by the Impressionists. Additionally, Cézanne painted from a photograph of a model posing in a studio rather than from a real life scene—a novel technique utilizing a thoroughly modern invention.