The Large Bathers: An Explanation of Cézanne’s impressionism

The Large Bathers painting

While the classicists favored perfection, contemporary art is more about the intention behind every stroke. An accurate understanding of the human anatomy was a coveted skill among artists during the renaissance. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, artists took the liberty to express themselves freely through the body. Paul Cézanne’s “The Large Bathers” is one such painting where human anatomy is used to tell a story. 

The Bathers

“The Bathers” have been a popular subject in art since the 16th century. Cézanne himself made a series of five paintings centering around bathers. “The Large Bathers” was the second painting of this series. 

A closer look at the painting reveals that it is quite rough and unfinished. The faces and the bodies are mere outlines showing disproportionate limbs and features. The painting does not show many details but just an impression of composition straight from the artist’s mind. Unlike impressionists, post-impressionists often manipulate natural subjects to make them more expressive.

One may compare Cézanne’s “The Large Bathers” to the work of great renaissance artists such as Titian to understand how much art has changed over the years. While Titian is known for his realistically expressive bodies as seen in his “Diana and Actaeon”,  Cézanne creates strong emotions through his two-dimensional, unfinished figures.  

The Subject

The primary subject of this painting is a group of women bathing by the river. At a distance, we may see other subjects such as a man and a horse on the other side of the river and a swimmer in the water. 

The man and the horse are walking toward a church, turned away from the viewer. The landscape and the small inclusions such as a church and the foliage reveal that we are in the middle of Modern France.

The composition

The Large Bathers painting
The Large Bathers (1906) by Paul Cézanne

One of the most noticeable distortions in the painting is the way the scene curves at the edges. This curve makes it look as though we are looking at the bathers through a peephole, taking a peek into their private lives.

The painting has been grouped into balanced geometric shapes, specifically triangles. We see a triangle on the left and the right and a much larger one in the center. These geometric shapes were essentially a precursor to the cubism art movement that emerged in the 20th century. 

While the pyramid composition has been used heavily during the renaissance period, Cézanne’s painting is different. Unlike the renaissance paintings, the central pyramid is empty and less cluttered while the smaller pyramids on either side house the major subjects. 

The pyramidal composition was used to represent the father, the son, and the holy spirit in several paintings during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, in “The Large Bathers” the triangle may just be a way of creating a balanced composition that is easy on the eyes. 

The Large Bathers painting
Composition – The Large Bathers (1906) by Paul Cézanne

Most artists spend several hours observing their subjects before they start to paint. However, Cézanne drew the Large bathers from his memory. These memories were from his observation of everyday people and other important artworks. 

Researchers have found several similarities between Cézanne’s subjects and some existing famous art pieces. For example, the nude crouching on the left has been inspired by an ancient statue of Venus, now displayed at the Louvre. Another figure on the left may be seen taking a stride, reminding us of an 18th-century sculpture of Diana. On the right, a woman leans on a tree with a lifted knee and a cloth on her thigh. Her posture is very similar to Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch.  

However, the other women don’t seem to resemble anyone in particular. The landscape and the bathers seem to exist in harmony as a part of one another. The bathers aren’t painted in layers; rather, they seem to melt and mix with one another. The artist’s short, flat brush strokes create a rough image of a subject that isn’t very original in art. 

Color palette

Instead of employing the typical chiaroscuro technique to add depth, Cezanne uses both warm and cold colors in a way to show depth and shading.

In The Large Bathers, Cézanne created a beautiful yet foggy sky by combining light and dark blue with gold and white. Golden and brown hues may be seen in the design of the tree trunks which echo in the beautiful hair of the bathers. 

Gray and dark blue hues have also been artfully incorporated into the skin. These hues aid in giving the skin depth and defining shapes, such as those seen around the breasts. The hips and backs are also shaded with browns.

One may notice a bunch of unrealistic highlights on these women’s bodies. These highlights are nothing but the blank canvas in places that bring out a bright white, enhancing the lighting of the scene. 

Analysis Of the Large Bathers

The Large Bathers painting
Composition – The Large Bathers (1906) by Paul Cézanne

Cézanne worked on “The Large bathers” for the last seven years of his life. The timeline reveals that the painting was definitely not a rough draft. The spontaneity of Cézanne’s brushwork probably hints at his message to the audience. He urges us to take time and yet seize the opportunities of life as they come. 

The artist has alienated these women from different works of art and put them together on the canvas. Out of the 14 women, six are looking the other way, and two others on the extreme edges are emerging from and dissolving in the background.

According to some commentators, the fact that six of the bathers are not facing the observer gives the composition a feeling of separation and a theme of secrecy.  

The triangular composition may also be a symbol of purity, an attempt to convey that the bathers are pure representatives of women and not to be sexualized.

The blank spots on the canvas make it seem as if the painting is in the process of emerging completely from nothingness or on the other hand dissolving into nothing.  

The man on the other side of the river represents the distance between us and them. The distance shows the separation of the civilization and the bathers. An interesting theory says that the man is Cézanne himself, moving away from what is real toward something otherworldly represented by the church in the distance. 

An Ending note

With each of the five iterations of “the Bathers”, Cézanne departed from the conventional format of a painting, consciously producing pieces that were unappealing to the lay observer. By adding to post-impressionism with a classical style, Cézanne indirectly sets the foundation for the 20th-century abstraction movement.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning behind “the Large Bathers”? / Why did Cézanne paint “the Large Bathers”?

In short, “the Large Bathers” portrays a constant change in life and the importance of seizing the opportunities that one is offered and also taking it slow or even walking away from things if required. 

Where is “the Large Bathers” by Paul Cézanne?

The Large bathers by Paul Cézanne is an oil on canvas painting, currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, US. 

What type of art is “the Large Bathers”?

The Large Bathers is an oil on canvas, post-impressionistic work created in the year 1898. Post-Impressionism includes the major characteristics of impressionism however it goes beyond it by distorting natural subjects more heavily than impressionists. 

How much is “the Large Bathers” worth?

The Large Bathers was originally purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1937 for 110,000 dollars. The painting has never been on sale since. In today’s times, it is expected that the painting would be worth $2,267,283 USD.

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