The Bathers, exhibited in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the largest of a series of ‘Bather’ paintings by the French artist Paul Cezanne, which is considered as one of the masterpieces of modern art. Occasionally referred to as the Big Bathers or Large Bathers, his other two works on the same subject can be found in the National Gallery, London and the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. It is considered that Cézanne worked on all the three paintings simultaneously and completed them during the last ten years of his life, which in some ways marked his move towards abstraction. In all the versions of the series Cézanne intentionally moved away from the traditional presentation of paintings, creating works that would not appeal to the common viewers. This is evident from the faces of the bathers, which are without any clear definition and their bodies seem to merge with the landscape. The Bathers, which Cézanne started in 1897, was the last of the three large works completed by him. It was not completed until 1906, the year of his death and is often considered as his finest work.
The nude female figures in a pastoral setting had been painted many times by the earlier artists like Titian and Nicolas Poussin. However, while presenting a female nude in their works, they often looked back to classical mythology and depicted the nude figures as the goddess Diane and her handmaidens.
But the Bathers by Cézanne is devoid of any such mythological connotation. The nude figures in the Bathers probably stemmed from Cézanne’s imagination and possibly things he remembered from childhood and not from actual observation of models. He preferred to focus his attention exclusively on the harmony of the figures with the landscape, as expressed in the combination of solid forms and precise architectonic structure and the repeated use of geometric motifs, which included triangles, circles, cones and cylinders.
The women in the painting do not have any goddess-like aura and almost appear to be on a stage with the trees on either side forming a theatrical proscenium arch. Although the abstract nude females gave the painting tension and density, the bathers seem to be relaxed and the bank of the river presents a scene of calmness. With focused eyes, one can find three triangular structures in the painting.
While two triangular structures are formed by the groups of naked bathers on either side of the foreground, the central larger triangular structure is formed by the leaning trees on each side with the horizontal of the blue-coloured river forming the base of the third triangle. The blue of the river splits the two bands of ochre-coloured earth on either side.
The Bathers in Cezanne’s painting are considered as his final delving into the nude figure and his desire to associate human oneness with nature. It is the most ambitious work from Cézanne’s lifelong exploration of the time-honoured theme of nudes in a landscape, which influenced many famous classical and Renaissance works of art, depicting complex groups of male or female nudes in outdoors. The Bathers by Paul Cezanne also inspired the younger vanguard artists, especially Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, for whom Paul Cezanne was the modern incarnation of the Great Tradition.