In the late 1890s, in a parlor-game-style interview, Paul Cézanne was asked a series of pithy questions. When queried as to his “ideal of earthly happiness,” he responded, “To have my own belle formule,” or “beautiful way of painting.” The artist’s watercolors, in their mutable mixture of graphite and paint, are ideal illustrations of his development of such a formula and of its radical results. Approximately 2,000 drawings and watercolors made by Cézanne—between his student days in the 1850s and his death in 1906—remain today.
Cézanne used his standard materials (pencils, watercolor, sketchbooks, and loose paper) in radically innovative ways, making his process visible. He created a repertory of forms and techniques—a kind of visual grammar—that may be discovered in the works in this exhibition.
Detail of Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne (c. 1884–87), showing pencil hatching and crosshatching
Cézanne used repeated parallel or perpendicular strokes—hatching and crosshatching—to model surfaces and create a sense of volume, especially in drawings made from direct observation.
Detail of Cézanne’s Group of Male Bathers (c. 1880), showing looped and spiraling pencil marks
Whether working from memory or from life, Cézanne employed dense scribbles to indicate shadow, loops, and spirals for foliage.
Detail of Cézanne’s Standing Bather (1879–82), showing repeating and fragmented pencil lines
He used fragmented strokes in place of a single contour, suggesting the many possibilities of line.
Detail of Cézanne’s Foliage (1900–04), showing layers of defined brushstrokes with ridges of pigment at their edges
Watercolor’s luminosity is dependent on the sheet on which it is painted, its brilliance a balance between transparent washes of pigment and the bright paper seen through. In his earliest experiments, Cézanne worked much as he did in his oil painting, applying the watercolor densely, filling in underlying pencil outlines, covering the paper completely, and highlighting with white gouache. Later he thinned his watercolor and laid down veils of color, incorporating blank paper for highlights. He often applied watercolor to dry, semi-absorbent paper, creating layers of crisply defined brushstrokes with ridges of pigment at their edges.
Detail of Cézanne’s Foliage (1900–04), showing diffuse color mixing when strokes of wet paint bleed together
Sometimes he overlapped brushstrokes in quick succession, generating gradations of color as the pigments swirled together. He achieved the jewel-like tones in his late watercolors by allowing each individual patch of color to dry before adding another, producing an effect that one of his contemporaries, the artist Émile Bernard, described as akin to translucent “screens.”
Detail of Cézanne’s Foliage (1900–04), showing pencil applied over layers of watercolor
In his mature compositions, Cézanne applied pencil marks under, between, and over layers of paint.
Detail of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-06), showing fragmented blue lines
He used the pointed tip of the paintbrush to draw, describing objects with wavy blue and red strokes.
Detail of Cézanne’s Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (1906), showing blank paper representing the label on a wine bottle
Whether as a partner in creating the luminosity of watercolor, or left untouched to represent a bright spot or an element in a composition (like the label on a wine bottle), paper is a central protagonist in Cézanne’s drawing.
Detail of Cézanne’s The Bridge at Gardanne (1885–86), showing the ribbed texture of laid paper
Cézanne drew in sketchbooks and on loose sheets, using smooth and uniform paper (called “wove”) and paper with a textured, ribbed surface (called “laid”). Early in his career, he sometimes drew on small fragments of paper, and he occasionally repurposed prints or pages from books or magazines. He often drew on both sides of the sheet, at times returning to a page months or years later. As his technique developed, Cézanne became more attuned to the physical qualities of paper—its color, texture, thickness, and absorbency—and to the effects of these qualities on pencil or watercolor.
Detail of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902–06), showing the impressed watermark
His mature watercolors were primarily executed on semi-absorbent wove paper produced by the French manufacturer Canson and Montgolfier, as identified by its watermarks. Cézanne frequently divided the sheets he purchased in half or in quarters to extend his supply and create more portable sizes.
Visit Cézanne Drawing through September 25, 2021, to see these marks in person. The exhibition was organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, and Samantha Friedman, Associate Curator, with Kiko Aebi, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints. Read more about Cézanne's drawing technique in the exhibition catalogue.