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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers

Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898-1905

Since my father’s death I’ve been twice to look at the Cézanne Large Bathers that our museum has borrowed from the one in Philadelphia.  I might have gone more often but with the baby there hasn’t been so much time.  It’s a vast painting – eight feet high and nine long.  The wall text says its vault of tree trunks makes a cathedral and this is right, not merely architecturally.  These tree trunks, along with a general impression of blue, and the gathered naked bathers, are the things you’re aware of before you know you’re looking, and the trees – four major lines on the left, two which join on the right – organize the space and direct your view.  The groups of people are at ease because they are gathered under and near the trees; the relationship of the figures – to the ochre ground, blue of water with swimmer, huge blue leafy cloudy sky – makes sense because of the curved, triangular view through the trees.  

One of the things your eye is drawn to, small in the distance, is a church with an oblong blue roof over the main building, and a little higher, a triangular blue over its steeple tower.  When I first saw this pair of roofs I thought they were one very beautiful shade of perhaps a cobalt blue.  After I had been looking at the painting for some time I realized that the roofs incorporated many shades of blue.  This was so obvious that I was quite surprised by how definite my early impression of a singular shade had been.  I already knew that the relationships among colors take time to see in paintings, but I hadn’t realized before how dramatically an impression of an individual color can change.  In studying the painting, I had been acquiring subtleties of comparison and distinction, a general blue was becoming various enough to give me back figures, water, distance, sky.  It was all there from the first, but I didn’t have enough experience to see it.  
rcohen 3

The Large Bathers II

The Large Bathers II
After I had been looking at the Large Bathers for a while, I noticed the swimmer.  Clearly a figure: head, hair, flesh tones, mostly submerged, but swimming through the water.  I saw that the painter had been careful to frame this figure, not only by the water's blue, but in the way that it is seen through the arms of the seated figures of the painting's center.  One detailed hand is angled out right over the swimmer, almost pointing to it.  Why was this degree of emphasis used?  From the swimmer the eye goes back to the man and the white beast of burden standing on the far shore and from these two to the steeple and roof of the church.  Leisure, labor, Sunday.  Also, a beautiful backward-directed, slight curve for the eye to trace.  If you were seeing it with someone else you'd have the urge to describe the curve with your hand, and your hand would make a gesture quite like the one the figure in the painting is making, the one that draws the eye to the swimmer.

But I didn't bring my eye forward from the swimmer until weeks later when I went back to look at the picture.  Then I saw that the swimmer is a kind of fulcrum that joins the lines of the painting.  On this second visit, it seemed the whole painting was about whatever it is, that white soft consideration, that the three crouching women hold between them in the foreground.  A cloth?  A sacrament?  Are they folding it, is it to be held among them, does it go into the sand as if buried or are they raising it up?