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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston welcomes Cézanne's masterpiece "The Large Bathers"
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), The Large Bathers, 1906. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the W.P. Wilstach Fund. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Two different visions of earthly paradise created by two modern masters—Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)—hang side-by-side for the first time in Boston as part of the Visiting Masterpieces series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Large Bathers (ca. 1900–1906, Paul Cézanne), lent by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been juxtaposed with the MFA’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?) (1897–98, Paul Gauguin). The monumental paintings are on view February 2 through May 12 in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery.

“Thanks to this extraordinary loan from Philadelphia, visitors to the MFA will be able to see these final testaments of Cézanne and Gauguin and their contrasting representations of paradise conceived from two distinct vantage points,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts. “Juxtapositions such as this, which add a greater depth to the appreciation of important works of art in our collection, are what the Museum’s Visiting Masterpieces series is all about.”

The Large Bathers and Where Do We Come From? were created at the turn of the 20th century. During this period, both artists were at the end of their careers Cézanne working in Provence, and Gauguin in Tahiti. They knew each other’s work; Gauguin had even bought several paintings by the older artist before his own artistic career took off, but Cézanne remained suspicious of the young Gauguin, regarding him as a potential competitor.

“Cézanne and Gauguin approached classical tradition in highly personal and quintessentially modern terms. These works form a bridge from the 19th to 20th century, and they influenced the generation of modern artists that included Picasso and Matisse,” said Emily Beeny, assistant curator of paintings in the MFA’s Art of Europe. “The two paintings represent these artists’ struggle to take a very old subject—idealized nudes in an idyllic landscape—and make it new. The results of this struggle are as different in appearance as the characters of the men who made them, but seeing them side-by-side allows us to consider their common point of departure and to contemplate the diverging paths they set forth for the subsequent generation.”

Measuring 7 by 8 feet, The Large Bathers comprises 14 nude figures in movement and repose along a sandy, sunlit shoreline, their grouping framed by a graceful triangle of slanting tree-trunks. The bathers’ activities are enigmatic, their poses, statuesque. Emerging from Cézanne’s lifetime of study, the individual bathers have been traced to varied sources, from student drawings after the live model to a study of the Venus de Milo. Simplified, abstracted, distilled to their essential geometric forms, these nudes exist outside of ordinary reality.

Gauguin’s Where are we going?, with its seven glowing nudes arranged frieze-like against a jewel-toned landscape, reflects the artist’s idealized vision of Tahiti as well as influences from other sources—Maori artifacts, Buddhist sculpture, even a Peruvian mummy. In letters to associates back in France, Gauguin suggested that the large (4.5 by 12 feet) frescolike painting should be read from right to left, with three major figure groups pondering the questions posed in the title, written in French in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. The three women and sleeping infant represent the beginning of life; thecentral group symbolizes adulthood and the onset of maturity. In the final group, according to the artist, the blue idol to the left of center represents “the Beyond,” while an old woman “approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.” The MFA purchased this seminal work in 1936.

The theme of bathers in western art reaches back to antiquity. It gained popularity as a subject for paintings in 16th-century Venice and remained a touchstone for European artists through the 19th century. Although both Cézanne and Gauguin chose to explore the same theme, their approaches were vastly different as were their temperaments. Cézanne was shy and spent almost his entire life in France. From the 1870s on, when he was still a member of the Impressionist group, he drew his subject matter primarily from his immediate environment, painting landscapes, people, and objects in and around his home in Provence. The exception was the artist’s imagined bathers in a landscape, an idea that preoccupied Cézanne all his life. During this period, until his death in 1906, he produced more than 200 paintings and drawings on the theme. This body of work culminated in three monumental canvases, painted between 1890 and 1906, which now belong to the Barnes Collection, the National Gallery in London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cézanne worked for the final six years of his life on the canvas in Philadelphia, which the museum purchased in 1937

In contrast, Gauguin was a charismatic and adventuresome sensualist, who lived much of his life abroad. A native of Paris, he spent his early childhood in Peru, returned to France, then went to sea as a young man. After a career as a stockbroker, Gauguin turned to painting. He spent his later years painting in the South Pacific, where his adolescent mistresses often served as models. Gauguin undertook Where are we going? in the winter of 1897. He had left France two years earlier, settling in Tahiti, where he had hoped to discover an earthly paradise unsullied by European modernity, but where he instead encountered the effects of French colonization and confronted his own mental and physical decline. To mitigate his disappointment, Gauguin forged his own “Promised Land,” an imaginary world of lush tropical landscapes peopled with Tahitian models and animated by his own invented mythology. In spite of his aversion to European influences, the classical tradition informed the artist’s Tahitian practice in ever more profound ways.

These masterworks of French painting reflect the two artists’ awareness of their own mortality and were consciously conceived as end points—final statements marking the close of a career. Cézanne suffered bouts of illness in his later years and thought that he would die painting. “I work relentlessly. I glimpse the Promised Land…will I be able to reach it?” said Cézanne while working on The Large Bathers in 1903, three years before his death in Aix-en-Provence. Across the globe in Tahiti, Gauguin envisioned Where are we going? as a last will and testament. He completed it in a blaze of creativity in January 1898 before setting out for the mountains to take his own life. In a letter he wrote after this suicide attempt, Gauguin explained, “Before I died I wished to paint a large canvas that I had in mind…I believe that…I shall never do anything better, or even like it. Before death I put into it all my energy, a passion so painful in circumstances so terrible, and my vision was so clear that all haste of execution vanishes and life surges up.” Though living in paradise, Gauguin was filled with self-doubt—fueled by lack of recognition and recompense-which plagued the artist until his 1903 death.

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