Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) created some 200 famous paintings exploring the theme of female and male nudes in the landscape, singly and in groups. Collectively, these art paintings stem only from his imagination – none of the nudes was painted from actual observation.

Paul Cezanne.  The Large Bathers, 1895-1906.  Oil on canvas, 52 1/8″ by 86 1/4″.  Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

The best paintings on this theme culminated in Cezanne’s three versions of Bathers produced during the last decade of his life. These Bathers, all radical experiments in form and colormay be seen at the Barnes Foundation (which also has eight more Paul Cezanne paintings of nudes in the landscape), the National Gallery, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Paul Cezanne.  Bathers, 1900-1905.  Oil on canvas, approximately 50″ by 77″.  National Gallery, London.

These three famous paintings signal Cezanne’s movement toward abstraction and share numerous traits:

  • the bathers’ faces are nearly devoid of detail and definition
  • their bodies are geometric shapes that merge with the landscape
  • narrative content is scant or missing
  • the bathers are forward in the picture plane
  • at the left, one bather walks into the gathering while in the middle, several are poised to depart

The Bathers also share overt art historical references in subject and composition.  Paintings with nudes in a landscape, for instance, were favorites of famous painters like Titian and Poussin; pyramidal grouping of subjects and even the presence of a small dog (missing in the Philadelphia Bathers) have countless art historical precedents among the old masters.

Paul Cezanne.  The Large Bathers, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 82 7/8″ by 98 3/4″.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

That said, the versions of Bathers differ markedly in execution and impact. The Barnes Bathers is the most intentionally and densely modelled and painted, clearly the most worked-over.  For that reason, most art historians agree that it is the earliest version.   

In the National Gallery’s Bathers, the figures are more abstracted and while identifiable as women, they are more geometric objects than feminine bodies.  This Bathers is about blocks of pure colors and flat planes of flesh-tones, greens and yellows interacting with blocks of sky and trees.

Even though Philadelphia’s Bathers is unfinished, it is considered by art history experts to be the most resolved of these three Cezanne paintings.  Primed areas of unpainted canvas create many whitish areas, while the long arms of the figure in the lower right barely obscure earlier legs.

The Philadelphia Museum brilliantly describes its Paul Cezanne masterpiece:

…the painting has the feel of an unanswered question, a testament to the “anxiety” Piccaso famously declared to be the source of his great interest in Cezanne.  The artist left unresolved the startling contrast between the lushly painted landscape and the stiffly drawn, expressionless faces...

Above: Paul Cezanne.  Self-Portrait, ca. 1880.  Oil on canvas.  National Gallery.

Notwithstanding its deep roots in the past, the painting’s pictorial daring is unparalleled, and today The Large Bathers appears as the opening scene to the artistic drama of the twentieth century.”

The flat-plane style in these Cezanne paintings was an inspiration for Picasso and other early Cubists.  While the Bathers paintings were not initially well-received by the public, Cezanne’s fellow painters were immediately enamored of them.  Henri Matisse said of his Paul Cezanne painting:

“At critical moments in my artistic adventure it gave me courage; I drew from it my faith and endurance.”

As have many painters since.

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