5 things to know about a Cezanne masterpiece

5 things to know about a Cezanne masterpiece

6 Jan 2023

Tate curator Michael Raymond unpicks the story of this spectacular work by Paul Cezanne, on show now in The EY Exhibition: Cezanne

Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) created around 130 bather scenes. These works both broke with and continued a long artistic tradition of depicting nude figures relaxing in landscape. For over four decades the artist visited the Louvre, where he sketched and studied works that in turn informed his bathing figures. Yet unlike Titian’s or Poussin’s allegorical bather scenes, Cezanne’s bathers do not reference classic mythology or literature. Instead, the figures recline in an unspecified setting or era, which perhaps adds to their impact.

In The EY Exhibition: Cezanne, this Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) 1894–1905, from the National Gallery, is presented with other Bathers from Cezanne’s career. They reveal the dramatic evolution of his style and reflect his career-long endeavour to reconcile tradition with modernity. 

If you get the chance to see the show and spend time with this painting – or even just view it on screen or on page – here are five things to note from it…

1. This spectacular Bathers is one of only three large-scale versions that Cezanne completed. Despite generally choosing to work on a smaller scale from the 1870s onwards, here, in his final years, he made an exception. The three large Bathers are the largest works on canvas Cezanne ever completed and have come to represent the climax of a life’s work.

2. In his Bathers of the 1870s, Cezanne depicted curvaceous female forms and muscular male bodies. Yet in this much later painting the figures appear distorted and borderline androgynous. The artist reportedly admitted to the painter Émile Bernard that he felt uncomfortable hiring life models in his later years, preferring to work from old life drawings from his youth, sketches of sculpture and photographs of professional models. He would use these time and again to inform the stances and poses of his bathers.

3. This is a remarkable example of how Cezanne utilised colour to create a harmonious composition. The 11 figures (and a dog) relax against a deep-blue Provençal sky flanked by a green-blue woodland. The sky is too dark to be day; the scene too bright to be night. Touches of blue contrast against the ochres and oranges of the ground, and the figures blend into their surroundings, at one with nature.

4. All three large Bathers were in Cezanne’s studio when he died. After passing through his dealer,Ambroise Vollard, art collector and tastemaker Auguste Pellerin purchased two of the canvases the following April. He lent these paintings to Cezanne’s now legendary 1907 memorial exhibition at the Salon d’Automne – a milestone that cemented Cezanne’s status as an artist of great significance. This Bathers was eventually acquired by the National Gallery for a record fee in 1964. Despite coming under initial criticism for the purchase, the canvas is now recognised as one of the most loved and influential paintings in the UK national collection

5. It is believed Cezanne started this painting in the mid-1890s. He continued to work on all three large versions until his death, obsessively altering the paintings and tampering with the canvases. At the top of this painting you’ll see where he reduced the area of the sky, folding the top of the canvas over the stretcher. After his death, the canvas was re-stretched and the top strip was revealed.


The EY Exhibition: Cezanne until 12 March 2023, Tate Modern, London; tate.org.uk

Look out for our ‘Become an instant expert on Cezanne’, with Arts Society Lecturer Michael Howard, at theartssociety.org in our ‘Features’ section


About the Author

Michael Raymond

Michael Raymond has been assistant curator, international art at Tate Modern since 2019. He helped realise the touring exhibition Nam June Paik (2019) and, most recently, curated the installation of Beuys’ Acorns


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