“Fruits . . . love to have their portraits painted. They sit there and apologize for changing color.”
“The painter gives concrete expression to his sensations, his perceptions, by means of line and color,” Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist Émile Bernard. Throughout his decades-long career, he dedicated himself to this task, continuously experimenting with his materials and techniques in an effort to record his sensations on paper and canvas. Returning consistently to the same repertoire of familiar subjects, Cézanne depicted long views and close details of the natural landscape; arrangements of fruit and kitchen utensils; portraits of himself and his family members; and individual and grouped bathers. These works reveal the innovative technical means by which the artist achieved his vision: the repetitions and transformations that realize a composition; the purposeful elements of unfinish that suggest the contingency of perception; the searching, multiple lines that together describe form. Through these efforts to represent the world around him, Cézanne pushed the boundaries of seeing, paving the way for further developments in abstraction in the 20th century, from Pablo Picasso to Henri Matisse and beyond.
Cézanne was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, a city in southern France, and spent his youth exploring the region’s rugged countryside, forging a lifelong attachment to this landscape that he would return to often in his art. In 1858, at his father’s behest, he enrolled at the University of Aix to pursue a law degree. After two years, he abandoned his studies to devote himself to art, moving to Paris in 1861. He would subsequently divide his time between the capital and the south, residing primarily in a bright studio in the hills above Aix in the final decade of his life.
Despite his reputation as an artist who “founded new traditions,” Cézanne was in constant dialogue with the past. He frequented the Louvre, where he would copy works by old masters, including Michelangelo, Rubens, and Pierre Puget. The practice, he believed, prepared him “to see well the following day.” He would later reflect, “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read,” and the shaping influence of the art of his predecessors is visible in pencil drawings such as Mercury after Pigalle. Cézanne carefully copied Mercury’s coiled posture from a sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle during one of his museum visits, and later echoed the pose for the left-most nude in Bathers, a pencil and watercolor drawing on a sheet subsequently torn from one of his many sketchbooks.
Cézanne was also initially influenced by his Impressionist contemporaries, among them Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir. Working alongside Pissarro in the 1870s, he began increasingly to draw and paint outdoors. This practice was aided by the advent of easily prepared, widely available, and relatively inexpensive art materials, including industrially produced pencils, tubes of paint, and artist sketchbooks. With Pissarro’s guidance, Cézanne adopted a brighter, prismatic palette, which he would employ throughout the remainder of his career. But he eventually distanced himself from the Impressionists, explaining, “What I wanted was to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museum.” He sought to unite the Impressionists’ direct observational approach with the sense of structure and solidity of classical composition, as in the works he encountered at the Louvre.
Cézanne’s innovative approach is apparent in the oil-on-canvas Milk Can and Apples, in which he constructs the dimensionality of fruit and fabric through the application of colored parallel brushstrokes. At the same time, he exaggerates the tilt of the sideboard to emphasize the two-dimensional nature of the picture’s surface. The result captures the material weight of objects encountered from life and exposes the reality of the composition as a work of art.
While most often celebrated as a painter, Cézanne was also an accomplished draughtsman. Drawing was a foundational aspect of his artistic practice, and he drew almost daily, making over 2,000 works on paper over the course of his career. Executed primarily in pencil and in watercolor on the pages of sketchbooks and on loose sheets, these works demonstrate Cézanne’s technical range. Cézanne used repeated parallel or perpendicular pencil strokes—hatching and cross-hatching—to model surfaces and create a sense of volume. He deployed dense scribbles to indicate patches of shadow, loops and spirals to demarcate foliage, and mirrored the skips and pauses of vision with fragmented, multiple outlines. He thinned his watercolor and applied it in translucent veils, adding pencil marks between and over these layers and leaving paper blank to indicate highlights. These works challenge traditional assumptions about the purpose of drawing. With few exceptions, Cézanne did not undertake drawing as preparatory study for oil painting. Rather, he pursued drawing as an activity that was valuable and vital in its own right.
In Mont Sainte-Victoire, the artist depicts one of Provence’s most recognizable landmarks, which appears in approximately 100 of his drawings and paintings. The peak is rendered with multiple dashed lines in pencil and watercolor, while overlapping washes of pigment describe the valley below. Showcasing his technical mastery over this notoriously hard-to-control medium, Cézanne varied the density and color of pigments across the composition to convey a wealth of surfaces and textures both near and far. Brushwork and line coalesce into a kaleidoscope of vibrating color, pervading the composition with a sense of dynamism—as though its observer is in motion. Illustrating the complexities of vision inherent to an age transformed by new technologies, like photography and film, this watercolor turns landscape into a prism, offering evidence of the modernity of Cézanne’s vision.
Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2021
Opening quote is from Cézanne, as reported by Joachim Gasquet in Cézanne (Paris: Les Éditions Bernheim-Jeune, 1921). Trans. In Michael Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, trans. Julie Lawrence Cochran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 156.