Cézanne’s “The Large Bathers” at the MFA

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“The Large Bathers.” Paul Cézanne, 1906. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Purchased with the W.P. Wilstach Fund. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Paul Cézanne’s monumental painting, The Large Bathers (ca. 1900-1906), is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts until May 12.

Many consider The Large Bathers, Cézanne’s largest work, to be his masterpiece. Bathers were a recurring theme for Cézanne, and The Large Bathers was his final variation before his death in 1906. While most artists painted groupings of bathers as erotic and alluring, here the statuesque figures are imposing, mysterious, and perhaps a bit unsettling. Several of the bathers turn away from us, including the figure on the far right, whose lower half can also be viewed as the awkwardly curved shoulders of the figure in front of her. Branches meet overhead the bathers like a cathedral’s arch, and are echoed by the church steeple in the background, creating an opposition between the sacred and the profane (Flam, 2012).

Their mask-like faces and angular bodies were considered ugly by many members of the art-viewing public, and the painting remained controversial decades after its creation. However, The Large Bathers greatly influenced the generation of artists following Cézanne, including Matisse and Picasso. On loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a part of the MFA’s Visting Masterpieces series, the painting is displayed next to Paul Gauguin’s equally monumental work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (D’où venon-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?) (1897-98).

As quoted in Art Daily (2/2/13), Emily Beeny, assistant curator of European paintings at the MFA, states that these “two paintings represent these artists’ struggle to take a very old subject—idealized nudes in an idyllic landscape—and make it new. The results of this struggle are as different in appearance as the characters of the men who made them, but seeing them side-by-side allows us to consider their common point of departure and to contemplate the diverging paths they set forth for the subsequent generation.”

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Paul Gauguin, 1897 – 1898. Oil on canvas. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Paul Gauguin, 1897 – 1898.
Oil on canvas. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

MFA, Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue. Open Saturday-Tuesday, 10am – 4:45pm; Wednesday- Friday, 10am – 9:45pm. Admission (includes repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and students, and free for 17 and younger weekdays after 3pm and weekends (otherwise $10). Wednesday nights after 4pm admission is by contribution. For more information, visit the MFA website.

February 2, 2013. “Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, welcomes Cézanne’s masterpiece ‘The Large Bathers’, Art Daily.

Flam, Jack. May 2012. “Bathers But Not Beauties,” ARTnews, 96-99.

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