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Paul Cèzanne, 'Les Grands Baigneurs (The Large Bathers)'

by Alan Wood

In 1895, Ambroise Vollard, a Paris dealer and important champion of avant-garde art, gave Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) his first one-man show. Rejected annually by the Salon, there had been few opportunities to see his paintings. Consequently Cézanne was little known in France and hardly at all in Britain. At last 150 were on show but there was little support from the public.

Following the show, Vollard commissioned three lithographs. For two of these Cézanne chose the theme that had occupied him throughout his life: naked bathers in a landscape setting. The first expression of this theme was probably in 1859 when he included a drawing of three swimmers under an enormous tree, in a letter to his friend Emile Zola. He was recalling the time spent with childhood friends in the area around Aix-en-Provence where he was born and grew up. Later, Zola described in his novel 'The Masterpiece’, how they would swim in the waters of a mountain torrent and “spend whole days, stark naked, lying on the burning sand, then diving back into the water”.

Cézanne's father wanted his son to follow a career in law but he was a reluctant student. For a time he worked in his father's bank but in 1862 went to Paris and enrolled at the Atelier Suisse. There he met Camille Pissarro, who played an important part in his creative development. For the rest of the decade, with support from his father, he divided his time between Paris and Aix. He had permission to copy in the Louvre and took an interest in a bewildering variety of Old Master paintings. A desire to emulate the traditional themes of the past led to the creation of monumental figure paintings inspired by Titian, Giorgione and Veronese. This lithograph was a re-working of the oil painting 'Les Baigneurs au Repos', exhibited in 1877 at the third Impressionist exhibition. In this painting and in the series of around 200 that were to follow, Cézanne brought together his affinity with nature, memories of a Provencal childhood, dominated by Mont Sainte-Victoire and his love of the Renaissance.