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A Series of Colored Patches
Painting in Reserve
Layering the Paint
Setting the Scene
The Role of Underdrawing
Rhythm of Execution
Fully Realized from the Start
Integrating the Ground - Cézanne
Integrating the Ground - Pissarro
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Constructing a Picture

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Many of the differences in how each artist constructs a picture can be seen summarily in Pissarro’s The Laborer (1876) and Cézanne’s The Hamlet of Valhermeil, near Pontoise (c. 1876–81). True to its title, in Pissarro's work the artist has laboriously built his painting stroke by stroke, layer by layer. Interestingly, this is one of the few paintings by Pissarro where we can detect any changes in the composition. Infrared examination reveals not an underdrawing but a change in the position of the laborer and his horse. While Pissarro frequently, indeed almost religiously, puts figures into his landscapes, they are usually almost beside the point. In this case it seems the figures are so vital to the composition that he needed to adjust them slightly. Characteristically, Pissarro has applied paint quite evenly and completely throughout the canvas.

Cézanne’s Hamlet of Valhermeil, while clearly based on The Laborer, was approached quite differently. The canvas itself is unusual—a long and narrow format that is not one of the standard sizes available to painters at that time. Cézanne is also painting on a rather dark gray ground, an unusual although not unique, choice for him. But he seems to have started this canvas in a unique way. In the lower-right corner one can see thin smears and washes of paint, apparently the residue of an earlier paint application effaced by a solvent-soaked rag or brush. This kind of edit is not seen in other paintings in this exhibition, although very few retain as much of the ground; so perhaps such edits are hidden by the buildup of paint layers. But it is the very fact that Cézanne has left it there, using or at least readily ignoring these erasures, that is of interest. The effect of the ghostly residue is clearly of his coosing.

Cézanne has begun his composition with the same kind of drawing we have seen in some of the other paintings from 1881. The basic lines of the road, hills, and trees are all put in directly. And here, too, we see him articulating architecture (in the lower left corner), with a series of consecutive lines massed together. Setting this example apart from most of the drawing we have seen elsewhere, however, are a few lines that do not refer to anything in the final composition. In the center there are a few simple, straight lines that would normally serve as the outlines of a house. But these do not, in the end, correspond to anything in the final painting. Despite the presence of a fairly complete preparatory drawing, which is quite visible without the aid of an infrared camera, Cézanne has not brought the composition to the same level of completion as the other works with similar drawings. The ground is evident in broad masses of tone in this painting, not as distinct applications of color (as we saw in Turning Road, Auvers-sur-Oise [c. 1881], or Bridge and Dam, Pontoise [1881]). While this results in a painting with some of the characteristics of his oft-discussed unfinished paintings, significant amounts of unpainted canvas—virtually all of the gray ground—resolves very well in the composition. The point he has arrived at, the resolution or, perhaps even in his words, the realization, is the point where the negative space of the gray, surrounded by touches of color, suddenly becomes a positive space. In Lawrence Gowing’s apt and elegant formulation, “The possibility is enough to show that this is a procedure in which reason and calculation are inseparable from the poetics.” This is a critical distinction and achievement. Cézanne is capable of using the ground as space and not just as color and, even more importantly, the presence of ground is not, in and of itself, the hallmark of an unfinished painting.

The Hamlet of Valhermeil broaches the topic of finish, as did the confounding brushstrokes in the upper right of Small Houses near Pontoise. Each of the other works discussed here illustrate in some measure how the start of paintings, the choice of ground, and nthe use of underdrawing or underpainting affected the finished compositions included in this exhibition. In Houses near Pontoise Cézanne explores rather directly what typifies “finish” in a painting. Here, too, much of the foreground is unpainted, but he very effectively alternates between ground and paint to create a reasonably easy-to-read foreground meadow. There are areas in the sky that also look similar, in terms of paint handling, to the foreground, but are in fact rather more fully painted. Most interesting is his use of drawing with the brush. We see points along the buildings, at the top of the hill, and along the trees where he has quickly painted in an outline. This use of a blue outline paint is something we see often in late Cézanne. The most obvious instance of this is in the upper left, where we see the tree limned against the sky; the casual, skipping lines suggest that they are the preliminary notes on the placement of the tree. If you look closely however, you can see that these sit very much on top of the paint. Indeed, they are some of the last marks made on the painting rather than some of the first. Cézanne looks to be working to create a more unfinished—or at least less labored—look to this painting. Or possibly he simply makes no particular distinction between beginning a picture and ending the same work, an apparently preliminary mark carrying the same weight in Cézanne’s pictorial vocabulary as a more freighted one.

Turning Road, painted a year earlier than Houses near Pontoise, uses this device of outlining at the end more extensively. While it has a fairly complete underdrawing, like the other 1881 paintings we have seen, his application of a blue outline paint as one of the final marks is found throughout the picture. Not only does he use it in outlining the cypress against the sky, even suggesting a second tree, but the rocks and shrubs in the foreground are also given the same treatment. It is difficult to know exactly why Cézanne chose this tact, but we have seen that in his statements and in the execution of his paintings included in this exhibition, the edges of forms present a special fascination and an acute problem for him. But in this case it seems he is using it as a means to confirm the composition—the reality of each of these compositional elements—rather than as a simple means of drawing.