Baigneur aux bras écartés is one of a small group of single, standing, male bather compositions begun by Paul Cézanne as early as 1876 (R. 252-253). In contrast to his depiction of female bathers, often Rubenesque in form and shown in groupings of increasing number and complexity, the male bathers confront the viewer with monumental feet planted on terra firma, in all but one occasion arms outstretched (R. 555), precariously navigating land's end.
The world of the male baigneurs stems from memories of youthful outings in the countryside around Aix-en-Provence and along the Arc, as the background in the present drawing likely attests. Emile Zola, a friend of the painter since boyhood, wrote in his 1886 novel L'Oeuvre, 'They had even planned an encampment on the banks of the Viorne, where they planned to live like savages, happy with constant bathing. Even womankind was to be strictly banished from that camp.'
The origin of the pose is liable to be the III century B.C. marble, Satyr avec cymbales (fig. 1; Musée du Louvre, Paris). Cézanne's earliest sketch based on it was done in 1874-75 (The Art Institute of Chicago). The artist's sketchbooks bring to light that many of his figure poses are derived from past works of art, ranging from classical antiquity to the Renaissance and Baroque, many of which he viewed firsthand at the Louvre. 'The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go forth to study beautiful nature, let us try to free ourselves according to our personal temperament' (quoted in J. Rewald [ed.], Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1976, p. 315).
Lawrence Gowing has suggested, and Theodore Reff concurs, that the head of the bather is that of Paul Cézanne fils, and its resemblance to many of his sketches of his son bears this out. In some of the studies the figure of the bather may be a young boy, but not so young as Paul fils was in the late 1870s--he was only 6 years old in 1880. Indeed, the muscular figure of the bather in the present work, as well as in other studies and oil paintings, is clearly a young adolescent. The solution to this problem is that Cézanne probably fashioned his bather from a composite of the pose derived from the Hellenistic marble and a head based on the visage of his son.
This second documented owner of the present work was Jacques Dubourg, the celebrated art dealer and Impressionist art expert. Dubourg is most widely recognised as having brought the painter Nicholas de Staël to commercial success, and was in the circle of the artist's most intimate at the time of his death. Baigneur aux bras écartés remains within the Dubourg family today.