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21 Chapter 10 – Paul Cezanne (part 2)
Audio recording of chapter (part 1) here:
Categorizing the style of Paul Cézanne’s (Say-zahn) artwork is problematic. As a young man he left his home in Provence in the south of France in order to join with the avant-garde in Paris. He was successful, too. He fell in with the circle of young painters that surrounded Manet, he had been a childhood friend of the novelist, Emile Zola, who championed Manet, and he even showed at the first Impressionist exhibition, held at Nadar’s studio in 1874.
However, Cézanne didn’t quite fit in with the group. Whereas many other painters in this circle were concerned primarily with the effects of light and reflected color, Cézanne remained deeply committed to form. Feeling out of place in Paris, he left after a relatively short period and returned to his home in Aix-en-Provence. He would remain in his native Provence for most of the rest of his life. He worked in the semi-isolation afforded by the country, but was never really out of touch with the breakthroughs of the avant-garde.
Like the Impressionists, he often worked outdoors directly before his subjects. But unlike the Impressionists, Cézanne used color, not as an end in itself, but rather like line, as a tool with which to construct form and space. Ironically, it is the Parisian avant-garde that would eventually seek him out. In the first years of the 20th century, just at the end of Cézanne’s life, young artists would make a pilgrimage to Aix, to see the man who would change painting.
Paul Cézanne is often considered to be one of the most influential painter of the late 19th century. Pablo Picasso readily admitted his great debt to the elder master. Similarly, Henri Matisse once called Cézanne, “…the father of us all.” For many years The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized its permanent collection so as to begin with an entire room devoted to Cézanne’s painting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also gives over an entire large room to him. Clearly, many artists and curators consider him enormously important.
It can be difficult to estimate, by eye, just how far away a mountain lies. A peak can dominate a landscape and command our attention, filling our eyes and mind. Yet it can come as something of a shock to discover that such a prominent natural feature can still be a long distance from us.
At 3317 feet (1011 meters) high, the limestone peak of Mont Sainte-Victoire is a pigmy compared to the giants of, say, Mount Fuji and Mount Rainier. But, like them, it still exercises a commanding presence over the country around it and, in particular, over Aix-en-Provence, the hometown of Paul Cézanne. Thanks to his many oil paintings and watercolors of the mountain, the painter has become indelibly associated with it. Think of Cézanne and his still-lifes and landscapes come to mind, his apples and his depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
Steeped in centuries of history and folklore, both classical and Christian, the mountain—or, more accurately, mountain range—only gradually emerged as a major theme in Cézanne’s work. In the 1870s, he included it in a landscape called The Railway Cutting, 1870 and a few years later it appeared behind the monumental figures of his Bathers at Rest, 1876-77 which was included in the Third Impressionist Exhibition of 1877. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the next decade, well after his adoption of Impressionism, that he began consistently featuring the mountain in his landscapes. Writing in 1885, Paul Gauguin was probably thinking of Mont Sainte-Victoire when he imagined Cézanne spending “entire days in the mountains reading Virgil and looking at the sky.” “Therefore,” Gauguin continued, “his horizons are high, his blues very intense, and the red in his work has an astounding vibrancy.” Cézanne’s legend was beginning to emerge and a mountain ran through it.
Cézanne would return to the motif of Mont Sainte-Victoire throughout the rest of his career, resulting in an incredibly varied series of works. They show the mountain from many different points of view and often in relationship to a constantly changing cast of other elements (foreground trees and bushes, buildings and bridges, fields and quarries). From this series we can extract a subgroup of over two-dozen paintings and watercolors. Dating from the very last years of the artist’s life, these landscapes feature a heightened lyricism and, more prosaically, a consistent viewpoint. They show the mountain as it can be seen from the hill of Les Lauves, located just to the north of Aix.
Cézanne bought an acre of land on this hill in 1901 and by the end of the following year he had built a studio on it. From here, he would walk further uphill to a spot that offered a sweeping view of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the land before it. The painter Emile Bernard recalled accompanying Cézanne on this very walk:
Cézanne picked up a box in the hall [of his studio] and took me to his motif. It was two kilometers away with a view over a valley at the foot of Sainte-Victoire, the craggy mountain which he never ceased to paint[…]. He was filled with admiration for this mountain.
Cézanne consciously cultivated his association with the mountain and perhaps even wanted to be documented painting it. When they visited Aix in 1906, the artists Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel found themselves being led to the same location. In an oil painting by Denis and in some of Roussel’s photographs, we see Cézanne standing before his easel and painting the mountain. Again! It was the view we can see in most of Cézanne’s late views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, including the painting that concerns us here, which is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In this work, Cézanne divides his composition into three roughly equal horizontal sections, which extend across the three-foot wide canvas. Our viewpoint is elevated. Closest to us lies a band of foliage and houses; next, rough patches of yellow ochre, emerald, and viridian green suggest the patchwork of an expansive plain and extend the foreground’s color scheme into the middleground; and above, in contrasting blues, violets and greys, we see the “craggy mountain” surrounded by sky. The blues seen in this section also accent the rest of the work while, conversely, touches of green enliven the sky and mountain.
In other words, Cézanne introduced subtle adjustments in order to avoid too simple a scheme. So the peak of the mountain is pushed just to the right of center, and the horizon line inclines gently upwards from left to right. In fact, a complicated counterpoint of diagonals can be found in each of the work’s bands, in the roofs of the houses, in the lines of the mountain, and in the arrangement of the patches in the plain, which connect foreground to background and lead the eye back.
Cézanne evokes a deep, panoramic scene and the atmosphere that fills and unifies this space. But it is absolutely characteristic of his art that we also remain acutely aware of the painting as a fairly rough, if deftly, worked surface. Flatness coexists with depth and we find ourselves caught between these two poles—now more aware of one, now the other. The mountainous landscape is both within our reach, yet far away.
Audio recording of chapter audio (part 2) here:
Comparing the Philadelphia canvas with some of Cézanne’s other views of Mont Sainte-Victoire and with photos of the area can help us to grasp some of the perceptual subtleties and challenges of the work. Take the left side of the mountain. Though the outermost contour is immediately apparent, inside of it one can also discern a second line (or, more accurately, a series of lines and edges). The two converge just shy of the mountaintop. The area between this outer contour and the interior line or ridge demarcates a distinctive spatial plane; this slope recedes away from us and connects to the larger mountain range lying behind the sheer face. Attend to this area, and the mountain seems to gain volume. It becomes less of an irregular triangle and more of a complicated pyramid.
Or look again at the painting’s most obvious focus of interest, the top of the mountain. Cézanne’s other works show that the mountain has a kind of double peak, with a slightly higher point to the left side and a lower one to the right. At first glance, the Philadelphia canvas seems to contradict this: the mountain’s truncated apex appears to rise slightly from left to right. But a closer look reveals that Cézanne does respect topography. The small triangular patch of light gray—actually the priming of the canvas—can be read as belonging to the space immediately above the mountain or perhaps as a cloud behind it. Thus it is the gray and light blue brushstrokes immediately below this patch that describe the downward slant of the mountain top.
Curiously, in one respect, our point-of-view is actually a little misleading. At an elevation of 3104 feet (946 meters), the left peak is not the highest point, but merely appears to so from Les Lauves. A huge iron cross—la croix de Provence—was erected on this spot in the early 1870s, the fourth to be placed there. Though visible from afar, the cross appears in none of Cézanne’s depictions of the mountain.
Cézanne had presumably stood on this summit, or these summits, several times. He had thoroughly explored the countryside around Aix, first during youthful rambles with his friends and later as a plein-air artist in search of motifs. And we know for certain that he had climbed to the top of the mountain as recently as 1895. Armed with these experiences, he could have estimated the distance from Les Lauves to the top of Mont Sainte-Victoire with some accuracy—it’s about ten miles (16 kilometers) as the crow flies.
When he stood on the mountain in 1895 Cézanne had, so to speak, entered into one of his own landscapes. As he stood there, perhaps he paused to recall some of the paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire he had already made. But, to return to Gauguin’s language, could he possibly have dreamt of the works he would go on to paint in the following decade—works like the Philadelphia landscape, with its high horizon, intense blues, and astounding vibrancy?
Writing near the end of his life, Paul Cézanne told an art critic that “one does not put oneself in place of the past, one only adds a new link.” In other words, through his art he wanted to engage with art history but also to modify it and take it in a new direction. It is a sentiment beautifully exemplified in the artist’s five paintings of card players, which he had worked on about a decade earlier, in the early-to-mid 1890s.
In terms of its subject matter, the series owes a clear debt to earlier depictions of card and game players by Baroque and Rococo artists such as Caravaggio (above), de la Tour, the Le Nain brothers, and Chardin; within Cézanne’s own lifetime, the theme had been taken up anew by Daumier, Meissonier, Degas, and Caillebotte.
Cézanne’s “new link” lies in the way he steers the subject away from its obvious symbolic and dramatic potential: clubs and hearts, winners and losers, the cheaters and the cheated. All of this had been thoroughly explored already. Instead, Cézanne attends to other aspects of the activity. He stresses the shared social space of the card game, intimate and familiar, and the attention and concentration the game demands. Not coincidentally, these are the same psychological states demanded by the acts of making and looking at art.
The version of the card players at Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cezanne (above) is now generally thought to be the earliest of the five paintings in the series. It depicts somewhat eccentrically-proportioned figures surrounding a table: three play cards and a fourth merely observes the game, his pipe indicative of his contemplative attitude. These are rural laborers quietly and sociably passing the time in a tavern or room. Like the other works in the series, the setting in the Met’s canvas is sparse. We see a table and three chairs (two of them more implied than fully described); a full pipe rack and a swag of yellow fabric hang from the room’s rear wall. The tabletop creates a clear focus of attention within the larger work. It supports the players’ arms and hands, which, in turn, provide a frame for some objects: a pipe, cards, and a prominent grey rectangle—perhaps a tobacco pouch or another card.
Although this would have been a familiar scene to Cézanne, we should not imagine him setting up his easel in front of an actual card game. Instead, the artist’s surviving preparatory works indicate that he studied his figures independently, one by one, and then incorporated these studies into his multi-figure compositions. Cézanne made oil studies for two of the figures in the Met’s painting and both models have been identified as farm hands who worked at the Cézanne family’s estate near Aix-en-Provence, the Jas de Bouffan. Even while they share the same space, Cézanne’s figures retain a sense of independence and self-containment. They are engaged, as one art historian aptly put it, in a game of “collective solitaire.”
And yet one detail in the Met’s painting points, albeit subtly, to a sequence of events and thus to the logic of an actual game. The figure on the left of the work (modelled by one Paulin Paulet) appears to be on the verge of extending his index finger, as though about to pick up a card from the table. It’s a gesture that connects thought to action, the contemplation of a hand of cards to the movement of a hand. Similar actions, although more emphatically rendered, can be found in an earlier depiction of card players by Gustave Caillebotte (right), who was both Cézanne’s colleague in the Impressionist group and a collector of his work.
The particular logic of any card game determines the value of any given card within it, and so Caillebotte provides us an important clue in his title (The Bezique Game) and even allows his viewer to discern the colors and ranks of a few cards in his painting (a red ace, a black seven). In contrast, Cézanne’s instinct is to withhold all such information—to keep his cards close to his chest. On his table, there is an upturned card holding three roughly rectangular patches of red pigment (see detail). But these patches do not closely resemble diamonds and, as though to lessen any resemblance, the card also contains similar patches of white and bluish paint.
Audio recording of chapter (part 3) here:
The tricolor of colors is picked up elsewhere in the composition, in the blue of the workers’ clothes, the white of their pipes and shirts, and in the red of the standing man’s cravat. With their vivid color combinations and flat forms, playing cards may even have had aesthetic significance to Cézanne, suggesting a model for his own practice. As early as 1876, he told Camille Pissarro about a landscape motif he was working on: “It’s like a playing-card,” he wrote. “Red roofs over the blue sea.”
For Cézanne, the formal elements (color, shape, texture, composition) ultimately trumped narrative considerations. The marks we see on the card create a grid of compositional elements, and this places the card in relationship to two analogous grids. The first consists of the larger collection of objects on the table, where the objects and the spaces between them form a kind of tic-tac-toe pattern. The second is made up of the four figures themselves, each of whom occupies one of three distinct spatial zones (foreground, middle-ground, background) as well as one of three different lateral positions (left, center, right).
This connection between objects and figures is even more evident in the largest work in the series of card players now at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia (see below), which Cézanne probably made soon after the Met’s painting. By adding a fifth figure at the back right, the figures now repeat the X schema formed by the objects on the table.
The three remaining works in the series (Courtauld Gallery—see below, Musée d’Orsay, and a private collection) contain just two card players confronting each other in strict profile, a compositional idea that first appeared in the two foreground figures in the Met’s work. In these later paintings, the table is narrower and cleared of all objects, with the exception of a centrally placed wine bottle. The two men study their cards intently, but no movement or move appears imminent. The details of the game have receded still further and life has been stilled. Cézanne’s card players, like many of his figures, occupy a space somewhere between the painting of figures and the painting of objects. They drift between different genres.
A New Yorker cartoon exploits this drift to humorous effect. In it, Robert Mankoff lets still-life elements and game-playing details flood back into one of the artist’s two-figure works. He fills up the card players’ arms and table with piles of apples, reminding us of Cézanne’s close association with the fruit. “I see your Granny Smith,” runs the caption, “and I raise you a Golden Delicious”Cézanne’s famous apples are now a specific type, as though straight from a supermarket. His figures are now not merely poker-faced: they are poker players.
Though no money seems to be at stake in Cézanne’s card games, commerce was certainly involved in the creation of the piece. By the 1890s, Cézanne was independently wealthy; he could comfortably afford to pay his models to pose and the resulting works were made out of industrially produced pigments usually applied to commercially manufactured, standard-size canvases (a “no. 25” in the case of the Met’s work). Around the same time he finished the series, the artist struck up a relationship with a Parisian picture dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who then became the first owner of the Met’s canvas. Vollard’s business ledgers record that he made a tidy profit from the work, buying it for 250 francs and, in early 1900, selling it for 4,500. The enduring appeal of Cézanne’s card players, though, may owe something to the way the five paintings provide a distinct contrast to the modern capitalism that surrounded their creation. If life can seem increasingly fast, superficial, and mercenary, then perhaps some consolation can be found here—in our prolonged engagement with handmade canvases showing a timeless, rooted, and sociable pastime.