Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (La Bouteille de cognac). 1906. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 18 7/8 × 24 5/8″ (48 × 62.5 cm). Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation (on extended loan to the Princeton University Art Museum). The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection/Art Resource, NY. Photo: Bruce M. White

“Objects penetrate one another.
They never cease to be alive.”
—Paul Cézanne, as reported by
Joachim Gasquet in Cézanne (1921)

Does a teacup feel? Does a sugar bowl have a soul? Does an apple love? Joachim Gasquet recounts Cézanne’s description of his fraught relationship with “those little fellows,” his still life objects: “People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy or soul. But that changes every day here. You have to take them, cajole them. . . . These glasses, these dishes, they talk among themselves. They whisper interminable secrets. . . . Fruits . . . love to have their portraits painted. They sit there and apologize for changing color.”[1] Cézanne’s interpreters have noticed that chatter—or, to the contrary, a resolute silence. Rainer Maria Rilke revels in the objects’ quiet absorption, the way they are “so wonderfully occupied with themselves.” Vasily Kandinsky tells us that Cézanne “made a living thing out of a teacup—or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive.” For Roger Ballu, Cézanne’s natures mortes “are not dead enough.” More recently, Carol Armstrong has compared the “physical and formal associations between objects” to “the social and affective ties between people . . . the play of dominion and submission that mark human relations.”[2]

As pleasurable as it may be to imagine the curmudgeonly Cézanne communing with pots and pitchers, apples and onions, what most animates his still lifes are the materials of their making. Self consciousness, Cézanne argues, is central to the labor of his art: “He becomes a painter through the very qualities of painting itself. By exploring its coarse materiality.”[3] This material exploration, this self-conscious revelation of the possibilities and logic of common art supplies, results in a work that is “a repository of process,” to borrow Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s words.[4] The papery-ness of his sheets, the liquidity and translucency of his watery pigment, the silver-gray strokes of pencil—it is in them, to return to Kandinsky, that Cézanne “realized the existence of something alive,” achieved his self professed aspiration to “astonish Paris with an apple.”[5] By creating equivalences between means and subjects, calling out paper by not painting it at all, and staging analogies among approaches and forms,[6] Cézanne makes of his watercolor still lifes essays in the mechanics of seeing and creating.

Aqueous itself, watercolor perfectly represents liquid: washy blue and rose denote water in a half-filled carafe, conjuring its moisture, clarity, luminosity; deeper reds and blues together suggest purply wine in a tall bottle, lighter and brighter at the surface; deep indigo fills an inkpot. Unlike opaque oil paint or gouache, watercolor is also an apt equivalent for translucent glass, and Cézanne deployed curving strokes in pencil and paint, and patches of color, to establish dimensionality. Meanwhile, broken lines, often in blue, materialize the eyes’ own skips and starts, especially around glassware—vision’s part-by-part efforts of comprehension, made ever more challenging by reflections that move and change with shifting illumination. Watercolor’s transparent liquidity offers Cézanne an evocative way to describe shadow, letting it “bleed” across a surface, like the shade cast by a green jug on a table.

Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (La Bouteille de cognac). 1906

Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (La Bouteille de cognac). 1906

For Cézanne, paper equals paper. Mostly unpainted areas of creamy sheets form the paper labels on wine and liquor bottles. Arcs of color or pencil indicate how these paper rectangles bow to adhere to a rounded form; as the “uppermost surface” in the composition, the label is, Armstrong points out, paradoxically “represented by the undermost surface.”[7] Cézanne gives myriad other responsibilities to unpigmented paper in his still lifes, from representing the texture of those objects he so carefully composes on tables and sideboards (the bright white of a cloth; the shiny surface of porcelain; the glassy finish of enamel; the smooth burnish of bone) to emphasizing shape (an unpainted patch indicating the “culminating point” closest to the spectator[8]; the hard edge of a tabletop delimiting space); from proposing analogies between items and thus transformations (rounded fruits allude to bodies; double oval highlights on a melon suggest a skull’s blank sockets) to isolating subjects in an unpainted void (whether a branch with a single rose or an assembly of apples and pears). In this way, “unfinish” generates a back-and-forth between what we understand as paper’s materiality and its contingent function in the composition.

The work is not on paper, it is paper.

Usually relegated to a supporting, or background, role—indeed the very terms for paper are “support” and “ground”—paper is instead the central protagonist in Cézanne’s still lifes. The nomenclature “work on paper” is similarly misleading. The work is not on paper, it is paper. Watercolor’s luminosity—its very being—is wholly dependent on the sheet on which it is painted; its tone, its brilliance, a balance between transparent pigment and the bright paper seen through.

And this is where the productive tensions—what in fact seem like brainteasers—complicating these works may be found. As a medium, paper is both opaque and not opaque. Not transparent itself, it creates transparency. As an actor in Cézanne’s compositions, paper represents both opaque surfaces (from paper to cloth to porcelain) and translucent ones—those of glasses, carafes, and bottles. Contradictory terms like opacity and transparency, then, “stand in relation to each other,” as T. J. Clark has explained, “doubting and qualifying each other’s truth.”[9] While in Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard (1900–06) the white paper straightforwardly signifies only smooth, nontransparent surfaces—the paper label, the porcelain pitcher, the ceramic plate—in Bottles, Pot, Alcohol Stove, and Apples (1900–06) paper represents variously textured materials: wine bottle label, glass tumblers (filled with sugar?), bread, straw cord weaving around a liquor bottle. As we move from object to object, from one unpainted area to another, we must recalibrate our understanding of that creamy white. A similar contradictory analogy is made in Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (1906), where the shape of the label echoes that of a nearby glass. The grapes, at center, meanwhile, are dense enough to block our view of the bottom of the wine bottle, yet are only scarcely defined by arcs of blue. In Still Life with Green Melon (1902–06) Cézanne imbues the spherical surface of a melon with the shine and glimmer of the adjacent glass through the multiple patches of green that form its skin (not at all the thick rind that we know, but a luminous, verdant light source); with a culminating point of brightness that focuses our eye on the fruit’s roundness; and with repeated, agitated, and broken strokes, which simultaneously describe and doubt its circumference, making the melon appear to shudder and quake.

Thus we see that as much as Cézanne attends to the material logic of paper, watercolor, and pencil, he also, Émile Bernard writes with admiration, “transforms his means, bending them forcefully to his use.”[10]

Cézanne Drawing is the winner of the Association of American Publishers' 2022 PROSE Award for Best Art Exhibition Catalogue. Read the whole catalogue and see the drawings referred to here.

Cézanne Drawing is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, with Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, and is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through September 25.

The title of this essay is borrowed from Roger Marx, “Le Salon d’Automne,” Gazette des beaux-arts 32 (December 1, 1904): “From Cézanne has come the tendency, so prevalent today, to express in all fullness the beauty and life of materiality” (464).
[1] 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.
[2] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne, ed. Clara Rilke, trans. Joel Agee (New York: North Point, 1985, 2002), 77; letter dated October 14, 1907. Vasily Kandinsky, in Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 109. Roger Ballu, “L’Exposition des peintres impressionistes,” Le Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, April 14, 1877, quoted in Benedict Leca, “‘The Painter of Apples’: Cézanne, Still Life, and Self- Fashioning,” in Leca, ed., The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne (Hamilton, Canada: Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2014), 37. Carol Armstrong, Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004), 31.
[3] Cézanne, in Émile Bernard, “Paul Cézanne,” L’Occident 6 (July 1904). Trans. in Doran, Conversations, 39.
[4] See Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, The Painter’s Touch: Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018), 89. This idea is central to Armstrong’s argument in Cézanne in the Studio, an indispensable exploration of Cézanne’s still lifes.
[5] Related by Gustave Geffroy in Claude Monet: Sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre (Paris: G. Crès et cie, 1922), 197.
[6] On the topic of analogy, see Bridget Alsdorf, “Interior Landscapes: Metaphor and Meaning in Cézanne’s Late Still Lifes,” Word and Image 26, no. 4 (October–December 2010): 314–23, and Richard Shiff, “Cézanne’s Physicality: The Politics of Touch,” in Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, eds., The Language of Art History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Shiff writes, “The general principle at work in [Cézanne’s] art is analogy: one thing is made to look like, or somehow be like, another, despite the differences and dissimilarities that otherwise obtain” (142).
[7] Armstrong, Cézanne in the Studio, 133.
[8] In a letter to Bernard, Cézanne wrote, “I mean that in an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point, and this point is always the closest to our eye, the edges of objects recede towards a centre placed at eye level.” The Letters of Paul Cézanne, ed. and trans. Alex Danchev (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013), July 25, 1904, no. 237. The culminating point is often, but not only, this area of unpainted paper. See Lawrence Gowing, “The Logic of Organized Sensations,” in William Rubin, ed., Cézanne: The Late Work (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1977), esp. 57–59.
[9] T. J. Clark, “Phenomenality and Materiality in Cézanne,” in Tom Cohen et al., eds., Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 94. He continues: “They exemplify the other’s account of matter—by showing it at the point it encounters paradox, and begins to follow a contrary logic.” [Emphasis in original.]
[10] Émile Bernard, “Les Aquarelles de Cézanne,” L’Amour de l’art 5 (February 1924): 36. Trans. Annemarie Iker.