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Europe 1800 - 1900

Unit 5: Lesson 4

Post-Impressionism

Cezanne, The Large Bathers

Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1906, oil on canvas, 82-7/8 x 98-3/4 inches / 210.5 x 250.8 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In the Google Art Project: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/philadelphia-museum-of-art/artwork/the-large-bathers-paul-cezanne-french-1839-1906/808050/. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    Do the man and the horse in the background symbolize something? They're in the middle of the painting, but seem to be more of an afterthought. It seems a strange addition.
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    The comment made between and that Cezanne represents "painting being about the act of painting" rather than about formal representation puts this all into a nutshell for me. I doubt that I'd be able to do much formal representation, but this comment gives me the impetus to learn "how to paint". Thanks.
    (2 votes)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Penelope Stuart
    Is there a term for the use of triangular structures in paintings such as this one? And does this theme of triangles in art date back to religious medieval art, or am I mistaken?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user sierraannforester
      Yes this does trace back for centuries, mostly to religious art representing the Father the son and the holy spirit. However, this definition is specific to a specific area of religion. You can find loads of information regarding triangles and what they represent. In many forms, the triangle can represent purity. At this point in time it is safe to say that the triangle is merely creating a strong wholesome composition while suggesting that these bathers are referring to something more pure and classical rather than women bathing in modern life.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user meredithsteelesimon
    I think it's really important to mention that Cezanne was likely inspired by/took from traditional African sculptures in his abstraction of historical Western representations of the female form. It's also clear in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon that you mention at the end.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Alex Hallmark
    I have read somewhere (I know I can find the source, later, and will reference it later.) that Cezanne did not like the women in this painting. That he did not like what he had done with the nudes in this painting. Is this true?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(piano playing) Voiceover: Since the Renaissance I think of Michelangelo's David, the body had been sacrosanct, the human body had been accorded the most attention, the most respect in the history of art. Voiceover: That's right, the body was a primary vehicle for artists to convey ideas and emotions. Voiceover: But at the very beginning of the 20th Century, in the last years of Paul Cezanne's life, he begins to deconstruct the body. Voiceover: We're looking at Paul Cezanne's The Large Bathers in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The subject of bathers is one that has a long history, think of paintings of Diana and Actaeon, by artists like Titian and Rubens, for example, artists like Degas were grappling with how to paint the nude in a modern environment. I think Cezanne is also picking up that challenge of how do you paint the modern nude. Voiceover: When we think about Cezanne we think about an artist who began as an impressionist, who's emphasis might have been on the modern world. Voiceover: Even though he's worked on this series of bathers for years the figures are remarkably unfinished, where we see sized canvas underneath in so many places, where faces and forms of the body are barely sketched in or barely begun. The figures are being manipulated and moved and shifted in order to fit in to some overall composition that he has in mind. Voiceover: Cezanne seems to be reaching for a kind of classicism, you had mentioned Titian and this painting seems to be reaching back to those grand traditions. Voiceover: Right and if you look at the Titian of Diana and Actaeon, that Cezanne probably just saw a print of, it does seem as though Cezanne is thinking back to that Titian, to architectural forms, to the pyramid of the Renaissance, to the way that Titian opened up the central space of that composition to bring our eye into a deeper session of the landscape. Voiceover: Titian, the great, late Renaissance Venetian is known for his glazing, for his ability to create chiaroscuro, to create the turn of the body, flesh that has a kind of translucency and Cezanne's figures seem as if they're made out of plaster, they almost seem as their fresco, they are so flat and so unfinished. Voiceover: If we think about Titian we think about the sensuality of the body, especially the female body and here we have female figures who are anything but sensual. They're architectonic, they seem frozen in their poses, their bodies are elongated, in some cases malformed, in some cases we seem to see multiple sides of the body at once, this is anything but a luscious, sensual Venetian image. Voiceover: Cezanne is also refusing the mythic context. In the foreground we might be in a classicized Arcadian landscape, but on the far shore we can see the back of a horse and a man walking away from us, towards a church, and we realize that this is modern France. So, there's this very peculiar pictorial construction that's offering us in the foreground, at this grand scale, this classicizing Renaissance subject matter, and then in the distance, something that might be an excellent [Provance]. Voiceover: And all painted where huge areas of the canvas are unfinished, outlines of forms are unstable and repeated and seem to move and shift. Cezanne seems to be modeling the forums of the bodies with warm and cool colors instead of using traditional [unintelligible]. He's building on impressionism, doing something classical, and in a way setting the stage for the abstraction that will emerge in the 20th Century. Voiceover: That's the real achievement of this painting, taking classical forms and making them subservient to the abstraction of the canvas. Cezanne is not copying the Titian, he maybe inspired by it, he maybe referencing it he's not looking at nudes in his study and being faithful to the shapes of their bodies. Voiceover: This is not based on optical experience, this is not based on a scene. Voiceover: That's right, this is opening form that allows for abstraction. You can see why this kind of painting, which was shown the year after Cezanne's death, in the retrospective in Paris, would have been so important to Matisse and to Picasso. Voiceover: It was shown in 1907, the very year that Picasso completes Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the first painting that begins to deconstruct space and open up forum in the early 20th Century. Voiceover: It is the foundation of how and which cubism is built and so the possibility for paintings to be about the act of painting in a very formal sense as opposed to the representation of nature that had been so much a characteristic of the 19th Century. (piano playing)