In the 19th century, leading French artists and poets became obsessed with visions of al fresco nudity, abundant supplies of sweet and heady wine, bucolic weather, and freely available consensual sex.
Huh? you respond. I know this dream! It’s hardly confined to French artists in the 19th century!
And of course you are right. The dream goes back to the Roman poet Virgil, and before him to the Greek poet Hesiod. But what happened in the 19th century is that Virgil’s vision of Arcadia — a delicate, loss-haunted description of a Golden Age free of sorrow, conjured up in his “Eclogues” — came sharply back into vogue.
This was partly thanks to an accelerating rash of new translations of Virgil into French. But even more it was because Virgil’s harmonious, classical vision was in perfect accord with France’s idea of itself. Indeed, it had deeply informed that idea, and was behind some of France’s greatest artistic achievements — above all, the poignant paintings of Poussin.
In the 19th century, as France shuddered its way through a long night of political spasms set in train by the Revolution, the yearning for the tranquillity that Virgil described became more and more acute.
By the end of the century, a stockbroker-turned-artist named Paul Gauguin was so high on the idea that a Golden Age might actually be within reach that he left France (not to mention his wife and children) and went to Tahiti, where he painted what is commonly regarded as the most important painting in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
Last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art explored the legacy of Virgil and Poussin in the late 19th and early 20th century in a show called “Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia.” The show linked the Arcadian visions of those big names of early modernism with 19th-century artists such as Ingres, Corot, Puvis de Chavannes, and Signac.
One of the three key works in the Philadelphia show was the MFA’s great Gauguin. The painting’s condition is delicate (the MFA used not to let it travel at all), so as a thank you to Boston for lending it, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has in return lent its own great masterpiece, Paul Cezanne’s “The Large Bathers.” Through May 12, it hangs in the MFA’s Impressionist gallery beside the Gauguin, in the latest installment in the MFA’s “Visiting Masterpieces” series.
The back story might be messy. But the pairing of these two great paintings is a rare opportunity — one that, for susceptible viewers, verges on overwhelming. Both paintings were produced by artists who — all but oblivious to the public reception of their efforts — had gone so far into what they were doing that they had emerged on the other side. The results, for all their grandeur, are rousingly strange.
Dismayingly, none of the MFA’s five paintings by Cezanne hangs in the same room to help flesh out the story. That’s because four of them are out on loan. A fifth, “The Pond,” hangs downstairs in the gallery for Modern Art.
Fortuitously, however, Boston has another persuasive Arcadian vision by a French artist who was a closely watched contemporary of Cezanne and Gauguin — and the greatest muralist of his day — Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis’s enormous series of murals in the Boston Public Library includes one panel that is a tribute to Virgil’s Arcadian, or pastoral, poetry. Puvis’s flat designs and classical compositions were a huge influence on both Cezanne and Gauguin, so it’s worth visiting the BPL after (or before) going to the MFA.
The “Large Bathers” is one of three very large paintings, all with the same title, that Cezanne (1839-1906) worked on for several years near the end of his life. (The other two are in the National Gallery in London and Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.) A vision of 14 naked female bathers in a wooded landscape by a river, the Philadelphia museum’s “Large Bathers” is more than 8 feet across, and almost 7 feet high. It is the stateliest, the brightest, and the most spacious of the three versions.
The other two have a more humid, clotted, and spatially compressed atmosphere, closer in feeling to the brooding but still luminous Gauguin (that radiant gold against the shifting deep blues, browns, and grays!).
The MFA’s Gauguin was painted in 1897-98, at least two years before Cezanne began Philadelphia’s “Large Bathers,” although four years after he had embarked on the first of his “Large Bathers.”
The chronology sounds fussy, but it’s intriguing: One tends to think of Cezanne influencing Gauguin rather than the other way around. Gauguin bought six Cezannes while still working as a stockbroker. He wrote letters to Pissarro, a mutual friend who had painted alongside Cezanne, quizzing him on Cezanne’s idiosyncratic methods. Several of his own early still lifes look very much like Cezannes, and he even reproduced an actual Cezanne still life in the background to a portrait he made in 1889-90.
But could the flow of influence have reversed course at all? All we know is that Gauguin’s great masterpiece was hanging in the dealer Ambroise Vollard’s gallery when Cezanne was in Paris painting Vollard’s portrait in 1898-99.
This may not mean anything: Many insist that Cezanne was beyond influence at this point. He was, as Gauguin’s champion Charles Morice wrote, “closed off in the cryptography of a difficult technique.” Or, to put it another way, he was off in another orbit, “floating,” like David Bowie’s astronaut Major Tom, “in a most peculiar way.”
No one studied nature more closely than Cezanne. But he was uninterested in merely copying it: Rather, he wanted to “realize” in paint the sensations it gave him, to organize those sensations and give them a harmonious, classical balance. (If you want to know what it was that Matisse got from Cezanne, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.)
Thus, his paintings are like ongoing lessons in the ambiguities of vision. They’re lessons that produce an astonishingly rich weave of sensation and sight, as signals shuttle back and forth between the eye and the feeling, organizing brain.
Highly attuned to nature Cezanne may have been; but of course “The Large Bathers” is hardly the record of an afternoon stroll in the country. Cezanne never saw this bizarre frieze of awkwardly proportioned and weirdly sexless nudes lounging under an arching canopy of trees, or anything like it. This is a dream image.
And the dream is Arcadian. If it looks nothing like any Arcadian dream painted before or since, that helps to explain why we still find it so compelling. And yet strange as it is, we seem to recognize it. For even as it insists on harmony and order, Cezanne’s huge and airy picture seems to quiver with psychological anxieties.
It doesn’t particularly matter if those anxieties were sexual, perceptual, or pictorial in nature. They simply emerge from the sheer oddity of Cezanne’s vision, an oddity we should never try to tame by pretending to have solved its riddle, or by using words like “masterpiece.”
Gauguin, of course, was so infected by his own vision of Arcadia that he took the title of Baudelaire’s influential poem “L’Invitation a Voyage” literally, and sailed for the South Seas. In Tahiti, his egotism — the tyrannical egotism of the dreamer who refuses to wake up — turned rancid. Gauguin (1848-1903) spread disease and hypocrisy among pubescent girls, and slowly descended into his own agonized, syphilitic stupor.
Nonetheless, Gauguin’s picture is mesmerizing — an extraordinary act of stylistic synthesis, as mysterious and stubbornly odd, in its way, as the Cezanne.
Cezanne was better than Gauguin, shall we say, at sublimation: Although he settled in his own, actual Arcadia — the south of France — he was shy and sexually ill at ease. Standing by his “Large Bathers,” he explained to a visitor that, as a practicing Catholic fearing surveillance from local Jesuits, he had long ago given up the practice of working from a live nude model.
Anyway, he added, tapping his forehead, “painting is all in here.” Gauguin can easily be imagined saying the same thing, but tapping somewhere lower down.
The differences between the two artists is fun to reflect on. But the sense you get, from both works, of a powerful sensibility scraping back layer after layer of civilized cliché, groping back further and further in time toward something not just poignantly lost (“Alas!” sigh the poets) but potentially more true, essential, and revelatory, is very moving.
We can recognize in its intensity the fundamental impulse behind modernism. Twentieth-century artists such as Matisse, Bonnard, and Cy Twombly, meanwhile, recognized impulses they went on to reshape as their own.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.