Paul Cézanne. Flowerpots (detail). 1902–06. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 12 3/16 × 18 1/2" (31 × 47 cm). Private collection

Looking—closely, widely, openly—is a central activity of organizing an exhibition. While less obvious, reading—closely, widely, openly—also plays a crucial role in the years of research and thinking that underpin an endeavor like Cézanne Drawing. What did Paul Cézanne write to his family members and associates about his art? And how have the artist’s process and work been framed and understood in the decades following? The Cézanne bibliography is copious and spans more than a century. Here, the curatorial and conservation team behind the exhibition have assembled a brief annotated reading list for MoMA members, ranging from primary sources such as Cézanne’s letters to fellow artists, family, and art suppliers; through the mid-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s exploration of the beautiful uncertainty of Cézanne; to several contemporary scholars’ reflections on the artist’s deep engagement with material.

Get a behind-the-scenes take on some of the letters and essays that helped inform how Cézanne Drawing came together. Members at the Explore category and above can bring their questions and thoughts to a special Member Roundtable on Tuesday, June 22, during which the exhibition team will discuss these texts, with a particular focus on Cézanne’s letters (a special selection of which are linked to below). This handful of selections doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the vast and varied writings that have been devoted to the artist over the last century-plus. A more comprehensive bibliography can be found in the footnotes of the new essays written for our exhibition catalogue.

Paul Cézanne. The Dessert (Le Dessert). c. 1900–06. Pencil and watercolor on paper

Paul Cézanne. The Dessert (Le Dessert). c. 1900–06. Pencil and watercolor on paper

I. Primary sources

Without the benefit of an actual time machine, primary sources—letters, writings, first-person accounts—serve that purpose as we historians try to understand artists’ practices and their time. Crucial evidence, primary sources offer details—from the sublime to the mundane—that help tell a story and add texture and depth to our understanding. We may confirm a date, fill out a social network, better sense an aesthetic proposition, learn about favorite books, or have the chance to review a shopping list.

A selection of letters from Alex Danchev, The Letters of Paul Cézanne (Los Angeles and London: Getty Publications and Thames & Hudson, 2013)
Read a selection of these letters here, including numbers 54, 62, 139, 233, 234, 235, 237, 251, 252, 267, 275, and 276.

Cézanne was an avid, lifelong correspondent, and much can be learned from his letters. This is especially true of those he wrote to the artist Émile Bernard in 1904-06, which, in giving advice to the younger painter, offer the most extensive discussions by Cézanne of the ambitions and challenges of his art. As he compliments Bernard on a study—“It’s good”—he also advises on the mechanics of composition, to “treat nature in terms of the cylinder the sphere and the cone” and that “lines parallel to the horizon give breadth…. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.” In another, he criticizes his own slow progress—“the improvements are never ending”—while recommitting to the “true path, the concrete study of nature.”

Cézanne’s correspondence with color merchants offers insight into his selection and preference of materials. His relationship with suppliers is elucidated by detailed requests for pigments and IOUs issued during periods of financial difficulty. An urgent letter written days before his death affirms the artist’s unrelenting dedication to his craft: “A week has gone by since I asked you for ten burnt lakes no. 7, and I have had no reply. What is going on? A reply and a speedy one, I beg you!”

From The Letters of Paul Cézanne, © 2013 Alex Danchev. Published by the J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles and Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. Reprinted by kind permission of Thames & Hudson

R. P. Rivière and J. F. Schnerb, “The Studio of Cézanne,” in Conversations with Cézanne, edited by Michael Doran, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) 84-90.
Find it at your local library

The account of a visit in January 1905 by the artists R. P. Rivière and Jacques Félix Simon Schnerb provides a vivid glimpse into Cézanne’s studio, where “half-empty tubes, brushes with long-dried paint, and lunch leftovers that had served as subjects for still-lifes littered the tables.” Their astute observations about technique—“Contour existed for him only as the place where one form ended and another began”—guides our understanding of Cézanne’s distinctive vision and approach to constructing a composition.

II. A classic, mid-century text

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” in Sense and Non-sense, edited by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964) 9-25.
Download in PDF format

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers on perception and phenomenology. First published in 1945, “Cézanne’s Doubt” dives into the artist's practice and offers an overview of his career, looking closely at how Cézanne himself looks, the way he lays medium onto a support, and how what he writes resonates with what he makes. Describing Cézanne in front of the landscape, what the artist would have called his “motif,” Merleau-Ponty explains, “The task before him was, first to forget all he had ever learned from science and, second through these sciences to recapture the structure of the landscape as an emerging organism.”

III. Contemporary approaches, focusing on materiality

Carol Armstrong, Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004).
Read the book online

With a keen-eyed focus on the wonders of a single work in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum—Still Life with Blue Pot (on view)—scholar Carol Armstrong tells an epic story of Cézanne’s approach to watercolor. In making a case that “the studio mattered as much to Cézanne as the plein air motif,” she reviews his art-historical touchstones, including Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, explores the relationship between color and line, and investigates the concept of unfinish. Armstrong expands on this project in a recent book published in 2018, Cézanne’s Gravity, which looks closely at Cézanne’s work in the context of other artists, writers, and thinkers.

Ruppen, Fabienne. “On Margins and Versos: The Hidden Interrelationships Among Cézanne’s Works on Paper,” in Cézanne: Metamorphoses, edited by Alexander Eiling (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017) 84-99.
Find it at your local library

Scholar Fabienne Ruppen’s game-changing forensic approach was a major inspiration for our research. In this essay, she shows how close attention to Cézanne’s materials illuminates new relationships between drawings not previously thought to be connected, and how the watermarks and torn edges of the artist’s papers become clues to his process. Ruppen encourages us to “conceive of a drawing not as a dissociated surface, but instead as a component of a three-dimensional object,” allowing us to see how “all of the images it bears become interlinked.”

Richard Shiff, “Distractions: Cézanne in a Sketchbook,” in Master Drawings 47, no. 4 (Winter, 2009): 447-51.
PDF available on JSTOR

Not unlike its subject—a Cézanne sketchbook—this brief article is something of a sketch for the scholar Richard Shiff, whose discerning writings on this artist (and others) fill volumes. Yet its insights into the Philadelphia II Sketchbook—whose unbound pages are shown in their entirety in our exhibition—were revelatory for our approach, helping us see how Cézanne activated his sheets through “graphic sparks.” Shiff “imagine[s] the artist engaging in aesthetic play that he never actively sought but could not resist. Sketching, he indulged himself.”

Cézanne Drawing is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, with Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints. Laura Neufeld, Associate Conservator, David Booth Department of Conservation, is a key collaborator. The exhibition is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through September 25.