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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

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.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.

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.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

The visual portrayal of someone or something.

Refers to the harmonious relation of parts to each other or to the whole.

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.

1. A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building; 2. A person who poses for an artist.

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

A label applied to a loose group of mostly French artists who positioned themselves outside of the official Salon exhibitions organized by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Rejecting established styles, the Impressionists began experimenting in the early 1860s with a brighter palette of pure unblended colors, synthetic paints, sketchy brushwork, and subject matter drawn from their direct observations of nature and of everyday life in and around Paris. They worked out of doors, the better to capture the transient effects of sunlight on the scenes before them. With their increased attention to the shifting patterns of light and color, their brushwork became rapid, broken into separate dabs that better conveyed the fleeting quality of light. In 1874, they held their first group exhibition in Paris. Most critics derided their work, especially Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), which was called a sketch or impression, rather than a finished painting. From this criticism, they were mockingly labeled Impressionists. They continued exhibiting together until 1886, at which point many of the core artists were taking their work in new directions.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

Painting Meets Photography
In 1884, a year before Paul Cézanne painted The Bather, inventor George Eastman developed a method for photographing on film, rather than on glass plates. The technique eliminated the need to carry toxic chemicals and the cumbersome glass plates, and soon made photography available to everyone. Within a few years, it became common for painters, including Cézanne and later Pablo Picasso, to work from photographs or otherwise include photography as part of their painting process.