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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Bathing in the woods

Marissa Patterson

During my first visit to the Barnes Foundation's amazing collection of art I found myself drawn to each piece, walking around in a sort of a daze trying to imprint each one into my memory. I knew there was no way I could possibly remember each detail of the intricate paintings, sculptures, metalwork, and drawings. I looked forward to our second visit where I would be able to spend long amounts of time with specific paintings, looking over and analyzing them in my own way in order to understand what they meant. Though there were many paintings I enjoyed it was not as easy as I had hoped to pick just one or two to closely "read". I wandered around the museum for a good while, trying to find a picture that not only grabbed my attention but called me closely, begging me to uncover its secrets. During my searching I found myself again being drawn to many different paintings, so I tried to find a common thread to my interests. It struck me that many of the pieces of art that I enjoyed most featured bathers. I decided that the most interesting in-depth look would focus on these bathers and the different interpretations made by the painters. The two paintings I chose to concentrate my attention on are Bathers in the Forest, a Renoir from 1897 and Nudes in Landscape or Les Grandes Baigneuses by Cezanne, c. 1900. I found it rather interesting that these two paintings of similar subject coming from the same time period could be so very different in style and form.

Renoir's Bathers in the Forest is very calming and looks rather similar to the many other paintings he has done of nudes and of women. In the painting a group of seven women bathe joyously in a bright yellow/green forest. A few light brown, white, and red trees frame the outsides of the painting and have distinct green leaves that flow gently into green bushes and bright green grass. The tree trunks in this picture seem the epitome of old, deeply rooted trees, with massive sturdy trunks and wide firm branches. In the distance is a rose red and blue house on a hill framed by the trees, perhaps the hometown of the sisters from which they've escaped for a day of fun.

The seven girls are arranged, relaxed, around a center pool of deep sapphire water. Probably sisters, they share similar colorings and have a head full of auburn hair. The girls seem to be at ease with each other, generally joyful and excited, yet at ease and relaxed. The first to draw my attention reclines nude on her side, relaxed. She is ever-so-slightly curled up, showing her back to the viewer and concealing her more private areas from view. She watches the rest of the girls with protectiveness, perhaps the eldest sister of the group. She lies on a crisp white sheet with blue shadings while her peach pink dress and flowered straw hat lay folded neatly at her feet. To her right is another girl who is kneeling with a burnt orange and white patterned cloth. Her hands are at her hair as she twists it into a chignon. She appears as if she just climbed out of the water, trying to fix her coif as she sits on the edge of the pond. Her spine curves gently down to the cloth, which hides her genitals. Like her sister she exudes a calm protection for the girls around her. I found it rather interesting that it is the two girls I thought of as the oldest and most responsible were the two who seemed to make a more conscious effort to hide their private selves from the viewer, perhaps adapting a more adult modesty their sisters have not gained.

To the right again sits a third girl whose back seems to rest on the frame of the painting. Her arms are wrapped around upraised knees and she stares off wistfully, preoccupied with other thoughts. She is interestingly separated from the rest of the girls, the farthest away from the pool, not quite fitting into the circle the rest make. She strikes me as perhaps a quiet and shy girl whose sisters dragged off to the bathe in the forest, yet her mind is still at home, perhaps in the book she was forced to abandon. Her curled position reveals a shielded personality different from the modest shielding of her sisters, more of introvertedness and a desire to screen herself from the viewer. This guardedness is enhanced by her position in the painting, off to the side and almost out of view.

Inside the pool are the two most unabashed girls. Facing out of the painting full frontally and brazen they seem almost to pose for a photograph, with arms around each other and faces scrunched together and smiling. The youngest sisters, most likely, they are the adventurous ones already in the pool and excited for their sisters to join in. The rightmost girl dips her hand in the water, prepared to splash two more girls on the shore. One has her hands on the back of the other trying to push her in. The girl flails wildly, arms and legs in the air. She seems like the kind of girl who, when she inevitably falls in, will grab her tormenter and pull her into the water after her.

The colors in the painting are bright and rosy, stereotypical Renoir skin in pinks, reds, and whites. The greenery has flecks of blue in it, echoing the azure of the bathing pool. The girls are young and innocent with rounded shaped bodies and healthy firm breasts. These sisters seem to be in the prime of life, full of joy. Their faces are flushed pink with excitement and each appears to be enjoying herself. The trees framing the picture seem to reach out to each other like the girls do, bringing the happiness and affection the girls feel into the nature in the paining itself.

The Cezanne painting, however, conveys an entirely different feeling. Nudes in Landscape (Les Grandes Baigneuses) c. 1900, appears at first like simply another portrait of bathers in the forest. Eight people stand in a forest, nude, with white cloths draped around a few body parts. Yet the colors are darker than Renoir's, deep browns, greens, oranges, and blues. The painting takes on an almost nightmare-ish tone. The bodies seem to be melting, breasts undefined or hanging droopingly down, bodies very harsh and pointed. The dark brown and black trees frame the picture ruthlessly this time, seeming to cut off the corners of the view. One tree is bare, with only angular branches reaching out, while the other does have leaves, but they are a deep forest green and black. There is a basket of food in the front center, seemingly forgotten by the bathers, full of bread, perhaps, or some other deep brown or orange food. What appears to be either a black cat or perhaps an article of clothing lies in the front center of the frame. No actual bathing pool is seen, but the women are nude and seem to have thick sheets with them to dry themselves. These towels are much thicker than Renoir's and ripple in the wind.

Seven women and another figure sit in the woods. This last character is perhaps a male, with a more angular face shape and what seems to be a moustache, yet the legs are those of a female and the women do not appear to be uncomfortable in his presence. He does not watch the nude women but rather reclines against a tree, arms folded above his head. The faces of the women are indistinct, many lack facial features or simply have circles for eyes and a straight nose. Their skin is quite different than the ladies Renoir portrayed; in a harsh yellow, green and blue these characters display an almost sickly countenance.

The women seem preoccupied and worried, after closer inspection, with looks of alarm on their faces. In the background a white plume of smoke seems to rise from a brown building, looking very much like the result of a fire. It appears to me now that these characters have escaped somehow from this fire, perhaps because they had chosen this afternoon to go bathing. Now that they realize what they have avoided they look back at the village with shock and alarm or seem to retreat within themselves in meditation or prayer.

Unlike the Renoir painting I found it hard to identify any sort of personality in these characters. They all seem to posses the same faces, bodies, and expressions, even between those who feel alarm and those who appear more lost in thought. Even the figure who might be a male appears very similar to the women around him, lacking any sort of sense of self. Perhaps in this painting Cezanne wished to make these characters anonymous, instead wishing to focus on their plight as human beings who have somehow lost their home yet avoided personal experience because they chose instead to spend the day at play.

Something else I find rather interesting I find about this painting is that the English name is Nudes in Landscape yet the French Les Grandes Baigneuses translates to The Large Female Bathers. I do believe that the English translation would fit better with my reading of the painting as I took the painting to not actually be about bathing and made the supposition that one of the characters was a male, who would not fit into the French title. I also wonder about Cezanne's choice of "large," for I did not feel that the women in the painting were at all overweight and were perhaps thinner than the women in Renoir's painting that seem to epitomize youth and vitality.

During this visit to the Barnes I was not expecting to come away with such a different understanding for a painting than what I initially thought. Through close inspection it was so interesting, especially with the Cezanne to discover meanings and motives that are not obvious on first glance. I also enjoyed seeing how these similar subjects were handled by two contemporary painters. This was an amazing experience Cezanne's Nudes - Renoir's Bathers (look for a link that says "place your mouse here to see Renoir's painting" near Van Gogh's Nude Woman Reclining).

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