A Series of Colored Patches
Pissarro’s The Potato Harvest (La Récolte des pommes de terre) (1874) and Cézanne's Small Houses near Pontoise (Petites Maisons près de Pontoise) (c. 1874) are examples of a contrasting treatment of the same, or very similar, scene by the two painters. Pissarro renders the scene in a predominantly reddish tone. His most explicit technical device in this painting is his very studied, almost mannered use of a consistently sized mark everywhere except in the extreme background, a device that almost—but not completely—anticipates Cézanne’s statement that nature is a series of colored patches. Pissarro’s marks in this case are ultimately an inversion of that theory, as they are each subservient to Pissarro’s usual insistence that a painting have an overall tone or hue, as opposed to the individuation of each mark that characterizes Cézanne at his fullest expression.
Cézanne’s Small Houses Near Pontoise, on the other hand, is constructed of quite varied strokes, marks that make clear his interest in observing color as dependent upon surrounding colors and patches. On close examination the white trunks in the foreground, notably more active and organic than the solid peasants of the Pissarro, are quite warm and tinted with a strong yellow. Similarly, the sides of the houses that catch the full sun reveal a warmer tone than the same material surface in the shade. The sense though is that these are not so much sides of houses as patches of color, intensified by the adjoining colors. There are some peculiar moments in this painting where passages are difficult to read as straightforward transcriptions of the scene. For example, in the foreground the garden wall disappears behind the trees, reappearing again as a somewhat lower wall. While his treatment of the wall shows Cézanne may have been careless with such exacting practices as perspective and scale, the strokes in the upper right go well beyond that; their linearity suggests possible furrows in the field. However, they are almost entirely unmodulated, forcing us to view them as separate from the hillside. Their function is mysterious, at least in terms of rendering the scene. The strokes on the extreme right of this passage show Cézanne beginning to fill in the space between, but he did not carry this along to the other strokes. This passage appears, ultimately, unresolved and unfinished. It is difficult to imagine what Cézanne had in mind here. Perhaps he was going to bring some color on top, all the way across to blend them into the hill. Or perhaps a series of small marks would be applied to break these into smaller, more modulated units consistent with the rest of the painting. In any case he has left us to wonder what exactly he was seeing, and what, in the end, he was painting; a question that almost never occurs in contemplating a Pissarro.