During the last four years of his life, following the completion of his new studio on the hill of Les Lauves above Aix, Cézanne’s most ambitious project—his final artistic testament—was a trio of large-scale, multi-figure oil paintings that depict imagined female bathers in an Arcadian landscape setting. Cézanne had begun the first two Grandes baigneuses, as all three canvases are known, during the mid-1890s and re-worked them intensively for more than a decade (Rewald, nos. 855-856; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and National Gallery, London); the last and largest version was initiated early in 1906, and patches of bare canvas remained visible when the artist died on 22 October of that year (no. 857; Philadelphia Museum of Art). Throughout this valedictory period, Cézanne also painted related scenes in watercolor as a means of testing poses and compositional possibilities for the three large canvases and—no less important—of exploring the determinative bather theme with greater freedom and vibrancy than oil could offer, breathing life into the static monumentality of the Grandes baigneuses.
The present Baigneuses, a jewel-like sheet of exceptional fluidity and radiance, relates more closely than any other watercolor in Cézanne’s oeuvre to the culminating, Philadelphia version of the composition. Both paintings feature the same triangular orchestration, with a soaring vault of trees that extends the diagonal line of the bathing groups at either side; the proscenium of foliage frames an expansive view into depth, breaking with the shallow, frieze-like space of the earlier Grandes baigneuses. The main compositional difference between the two paintings is the addition of a third cluster of bathers in the center of the watercolor, creating a balanced, tripartite schema that appears only here and in a single, contemporaneous oil study (Rewald, no. 877). “Chappuis likened the general appearance of [the present] sheet to that of some symmetrically arranged Baroque scene,” John Rewald has written. “The central nudes seem to be bending down, as though the artist had been vaguely inspired by the Biblical story of Moses being found among the bulrushes” (op. cit., 1983, p. 245).
Cézanne also experimented in this watercolor with a new perspective, transforming his own relationship to the bather theme. In all three versions of the Grandes baigneuses, the bathers are positioned on a horizontal expanse of riverbank in the foreground, while the water itself lies beyond them, inaccessible to the artist and, by proxy, the viewer. Here, by contrast, Cézanne introduced a tributary stream that enters the composition on a diagonal and feeds into the river in the middle distance; the central gathering of bathers appears to wade in the narrow channel, with the two lateral groups looking on from dry land. The artist’s vantage point is now implicitly an aqueous one, as though he had entered into the imagined scene of bathing—visualizing, perhaps, his persistent nostalgia for the youthful swimming excursions that he took with Zola to the Arc river near Aix. The fluid, gestural handling of the watercolor heightens this effect, preserving the trace of the artist’s hand in each transparent touch of hue and thus asserting his emotional participation in the tableau.
The intensity of Cézanne’s engagement with the scene finds its surest manifestation, though, in the motif that completes the composition in the distance—Mont Sainte-Victoire, the craggy massif that juts high above the plain east of Aix, which the artist invoked as an enduring symbol of his native, ancestral Provence. This mountain became an idée fixe in the artist’s creative imagination, a compelling motif to which he returned time and again in his work. “Cézanne was particularly absorbed by the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the countryside over which it presides in the last few years of his life, and he depicted it with intensity and immediacy,” Philip Conisbee has written. “It concerned Cézanne’s identity, of course: he felt himself to be this pays d’Aix, that mountain” (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 290).
Baigneuses devant une montagne is the sole painting from Les Lauves in which Cézanne united these two emblematic themes—the bathers and Mont Sainte-Victoire—into a single image, a talisman of his artistic persona and innermost self. Melvin Waldfogel has proposed that Cézanne intended an oil version of this “new and brilliant solution,” but that “death prevented him from elevating it to the status of Grandes baigneuses” (op. cit., 1962, p. 204). The only other time that Cézanne combined these two motifs was some three decades earlier in Baigneurs au repos, where Sainte-Victoire functions principally as a descriptive backdrop for an anecdotal grouping of four male bathers (Rewald, no. 261; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia). The present painting, by contrast, presents a unified, all-embracing ideal, with the bathers and the mountain both radiating forth from encompassing washes of blue and green; the slope of Sainte-Victoire repeats the pyramidal arrangement of the central bathing group and fills the wedge of space that opens up beyond the canopy of trees, creating an echoing series of triangular forms that conveys a harmoniously integrated vision.
This exceptional painting, which has a pencil study of houses on the verso, originally formed part of a sketchbook that Cézanne used at intervals over the course of his career. The sketchbook is one of 19 that were preserved in Cézanne’s studio at his death and subsequently passed to his son; in the 1930s, Paul fils began to detach pages of particular attractiveness and market value from the various sketchbooks, including watercolors and more complete drawings. The present Baigneuses was first exhibited as an independent work in 1935 at Galerie Renou et Colle in Paris, most likely loaned by Paul fils. It is one of seven pages, out of a total of 52, that were extracted from this particular sketchbook and offered for sale; three unillustrated sheets were removed as well and possibly discarded (I. Shoemaker and T. Reff, op. cit., 1989, p. 22). The sketchbook itself, minus these dispersed pages, is housed today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.