I first read about the painting ‘Three Bathers’ by Paul Cézanne when I read Hilary Spurling’s biography on Henri Matisse many years ago which left me in no doubt about the powerful impact this painting had on Matisse. Matisse was so struck by this painting that he pawned his wife’s emerald ring to purchase it from the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. This was in 1889 and Matisse didn’t part with it for another 37 years when he donated it to the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in 1936. When he presented the painting to the Petit Palais, Matisse wrote that “It has supported me morally at critical moments in my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance”. The painting exerted such a powerful pull over Matisse that while living in Quai St-Michel in Paris, he got up early each morning so that he could start the day by contemplating the painting in the early morning light. This power was also noted by Matisse’s students who remembered that when Matisse showed it to them, he remained silent before it and a spirit of awe prevailed.
The painting is not very large and it is executed in beautiful shades of yellow, blues and greens. The painting is set out in an orderly structure with the three nude female bathers placed in a triangular shape and framed by the branches of two tress that form an arc over them giving an architectural feel to the painting. The bathers are painted as stocky figures each bather having similar long hair except one is blonde, the second red and the third dark.
Matisse’s rival, Pablo Picasso, was also a great admirer of Three Bathers. Although rivals, the pair visited each other’s studios regularlly and hence Picasso had the opportunity to study the painting in the intimate environment of Matise’s studio. The influence of Three Bathers and Cezanne generally on Picasso can be seen, for example, in Picasso’s ‘Two Nudes’ painted in 1906 notably in the hefty nature of the figures. Picasso would go on to say that Cezanne ´was my one and only master’ and acknowledge him as ´the father of us all’. It was not just Cezanne’s representation of form that inspired Picasso but also his palette as colour did not come instinctively to Picasso.
Paul Cezanne was born into a prosperous family in Aix-en-Provence in 1839 so he didn’t struggle financially as an artist but he failed to get during his lifetime the artistic recognition that he obtained after his death in 1906. He did, however, obtain the admiration of the younger artists of his time and not just Matisse and Picasso but also the likes of Georges Braque who said of Cezanne that “painting was a matter of life and death. That is why I have learned more from him than from anybody”. It wasn’t until his first solo exhibition organised by Ambroise Vollard in 1895 that Cezanne began to get some recognition in his lifetime. Today, Cezanne is considered as one of the most influential artists of the 19th century and the inspiration for the cubist movement of the 20th century. Cezanne’s artistic style is easily recognisable whether it be his still lifes, his landscapes, his portraits or his bathers as some of his most famous images below demonstrate.