The Three Bathers and Matisse’s Hommage to Cezanne

Pierre Matisse (1869-1954) owned a Cezanne (1839-1906) canvas of Three Bathers for almost 40 years. 

He bought it at a time when he had little money in 1899 for 1200 francs which he paid off in installments. 

In 1936, Matisse donated this painting to the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris asking that it be hung with care in a prominent place.  This is where it still is.

There is an earlier version of the canvas which Pierre Matisse bought in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  Below.


Three Bathers, 1879-82 by Paul Cezanne
Three Bathers, 1876-77, oil on canvas.  Paul Cezanne, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

This is what Matisse said about the canvas which he owned.

In the 37 years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope.  It has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist.  I have drawn from it my faith and perseverance.…It has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.  


An astonishing statement of the transmission of Cezanne’s aesthetic evolution and moral energy.  


As to what it means.

It appears, from Matisse’s subsequent innovations, to mean that Matisse recognized that Cezanne had transcended an artistic constraint which had bound painting until Cezanne in that he had begun the liberation of  painting from the object painted.  He did this without entering into pure abstraction. He did not abstract the thing or person painted by using the impressions the eye lifts from the thing or person viewed.  Instead, he focussed on what made that thing or person solid, grounded, locked into its surroundings.

This  movement was, of course, noted by many of his younger colleagues; among whom Pablo Picasso (1881-1973, Spanish) among others, crossed the line into abstraction without compunction.

Cezanne was one generation older than Matisse and Picasso one half generation younger than Matisse.  Marcel Duchamp was a bare generation younger than Matisse.  So rapid is cultural change today that the time it took for this move to abstraction to occur is interesting.  Of course, the change occurred in a very conservative aesthetic tradition.


More bathers – from the 200 or so paintings of bathers which Cezanne completed – in chronological order so that Cezanne’s liberation of painting from the object painted can be observed.    

These are at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia which holds a total of 69 paintings by Cezanne. The Barnes forbids photography and these are taken from its website.


Bather at the Seashore (Baigneuse au bord de la mer)

Bather at the Seashore (Baigneuse au bord de la mer), c. 1875. Oil on canvas.  Paul Cézanne.  The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


Bathers at Rest (Baigneurs au repos)

Bathers at Rest (Baigneurs au repos), 1876–1877. Oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne.  The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


Four Bathers (Quatre baigneuses)

Four Bathers (Quatre baigneuses), 1876–1877. Oil on canvas.  Paul Cézanne.  Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia



Five Bathers (Cinq baigneuses) Five Bathers (Cinq baigneuses), 1877–1878. Oil on canvas.  Paul Cézanne.  Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia







Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and detail, 1907, oil on canvas.  Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973.  MOMA, NY

Les Cinque Baigneuses is thought to be one of the primary sources for Les Demoiselles d’Avingnon.




 Group of Bathers and detail, c. 1885, oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne.  Philadelphia Art Museum 

This painting is no bigger than an Apple IPAD.





Dance (I), 1909, oil on canvas.  Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French.  MOMA, New York


Group of Bathers (Groupe de baigneurs)

 Group of Bathers (Groupe de baigneurs), 1892–1894. Oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne.  Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


The Large Bathers (Les Grandes baigneuses)

The Large Bathers (Les Grandes baigneuses), 1895–1906. Oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne.  Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


This painting of a nude man is at the MOMA.  After I saw it, I remembered it as a Cezanne.  It is actually by Matisse in 1900. 

Here Matisse experiments with the blocks of colour with which Cezanne achieved a figuration and a representation of the real which is neither abstract, nor real but which represents – as Cezanne was seeking – our too, too solid flesh…………




Male Model, oil on canvas, 1900. Henri Matisse.



And here is Matisse’s clear evolution of his own style.



Bather, 1909, oil on canvas.  Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. MOMA, NY

Here is The Large Bathers at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Chronologically, it is the latest of paintings of bathers by Cezanne in Philadelphia:






The Large Bathers and detail,  1900-1906, oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne,  Philadelphia Art Museum




Bathers by a River, 1909-1917, oil on canvas.  Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French. Chicago Art Institute. Image from the web.

The original painting was rejected by the man who had commissioned it.  Matisse then worked on this for ten years and it represented an important evolution of his style.



The place of Cezanne in the evolution of the painting tradition seems to continue controversial partially because the artist continuously acknowledged his debt and his attachment to the French classical tradition.  The story is that Cezanne transferred to his bedroom from his studio just before his death a painting of flowers by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863, French) to which he was particularly attached.


Evaluation of the artist’s place is partially controversial also because of the subversion of the classical tradition by the very articulate and clever Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968, American born France) whose nudes were descending staircases a mere six years after Cezanne’s death.




Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, oil on canvas.  Philadelphia Art Museum


But are we seriously going to sit here and gainsay Matisse whose oeuvre ended, when he was an old man, in luminous denatured cut-outs:  recognizable shapes, not exactly disembodied but certainly floating free of any natural context? 


Floating free.  The very definition of our modernity. Or so we like to think.






Oceania and detail, 1946, screenprint on linen.  

Pierre Matisse,  1869-1954,  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



Large Decoration with Masks, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, mounted on canvas.

  Pierre Matisse,  1869-1954, one year before his death, during a time of increasing ill-health and almost fifty years after the death of Paul Cézanne.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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