The Three Bathers and Matisse’s Hommage to Cézanne

Pierre Matisse (1869-1954) owned a Cézanne (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.


In the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, there is an earlier version of the canvas which Pierre Matisse bought.  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 Cézanne‘s aesthetic evolution and moral energy, and courage.


As to what it means.


It appears, from Matisse’s subsequent innovations, to mean that Matisse recognized that Cézanne had transcended an artistic constraint which had bound painting until Cézanne 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 focused on what made that thing or person or landscape solid, grounded, locked into its being.

He studied the object from many angles. He abstracted the shapes he found and he represented these shapes, sometimes reconfigured but always within the boundaries which we recognize to be a mountain, a garden wall, an apple, his wife etc.

Without crossing into abstraction.


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. 

Here is a Bather of Picasso which dates to 1908-1909 and shows his experimentation with the new representational possibilities offered by steps into Cubist abstraction. 

The bather, standing on the sand, is represented from the front, rear and side simultaneously.  Her body is made up of discrete shapes.




Bather, 1908-1909, oil on sand.  Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Spanish. MOMA, NY



Cézanne 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 interestingly slow. 


Of course, the change occurred in a very conservative aesthetic tradition in which participants risked everything.  Also, it is as difficult and long-berthed to evolve a concept and a practice in an aesthetic tradition – unaided by machines – as it is to evolve a philosophical concept.



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

Paintings at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, which holds a total of 69 paintings by Cézanne are  taken from its website.




Bathers, 1874-75, oil on canvas.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. 

The museum notes that the artist worked slowly and, fascinated though he was by the human form, he was uncomfortable with female models.  He tended to work from his imagination and from his knowledge of Renaissance and classical art.


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.  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






The Bather, 1885, oil on canvas.  MOMA, NY

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, 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.




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The Battle of Love, c. 1880.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC






 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





Bathers, 1898-1900, oil on canvas. Paul Cézanne.  Baltimore Art Museum.  

Gertrude and Leo Stein bought this painting from Cézanne’s dealer in 1904 or 1905.  It had been included in the Autumn Salon of 1904.  Many, many artists and writers saw this painting at the Steins before they sold it to Etta Cone, in 1926.  She was, with her sister, a large benefactor of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The painting  below of a nude man is at the MOMA, NY.

After I saw it, I remembered it as a Cézanne .  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 Cézanne was seeking – our too, too solid flesh…………






Male Model, oil on canvas, 1900. Henri Matisse1869-1954, French MOMA, NY





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



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



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.



Here is Cézanne’s The Large Bathers at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

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










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





Matisse created his own ‘bathing pool’ in the summer of 1952. 

MOMA notes that he had his assistant attach a band of white paper just above head level around his dining room breaking at the windows and door. 

The artist cut divers, swimmers and sea creatures out of paper painted ultramarine blue and pinned them to the paper. 

To my knowledge, these cut-out papers are the last of the painter’s bathers.














The Swimming Pool, 1952, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on painted paper.  MOMA, NY





The place of Cézanne 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 Cézanne 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 articulate and clever Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968, American born France) whose nudes were descending staircases a mere six years after Cézanne‘s death.





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


But this nude owes everything to Cézanne from whom she is evolved. Here she is rushing downstairs away from representation towards a thorough-going abstraction.


And 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









2 thoughts on “The Three Bathers and Matisse’s Hommage to Cézanne

  1. Fascinating lesson in transformations. Thank you, Sarah. I have enjoyed scrolling through this art history lesson in which my own lens has been helpfully adjusted by way of your so very perceptive musings.

    1. Susannah, Thanks for the appreciation! Such a pleasure all of this especially in these sordid times…..

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