An introduction by Dr. Richard Brettell:
Is it possible that Paul Cézanne painted a perfect still-life? He painted so many, and they grapple with issues of balance, colour, composition, and pictorial tension with such determination and pictorial skill that it is hard to choose the still-life. Yet, I will argue that this painting of modest dimensions painted sometime in the 1880s lays claim to perfection.
Cézanne painted many still-lives with a single plate of fruit roughly centred in the composition. The earliest fully resolved such picture, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, represents a large, deep rimmed dish filled with small apples that tumble about in the ample space of the dish while a group of three apples outside of it nestle beneath its rim like puppies or kittens near their mother. Owned in the decade it was made by the collector Eugène Murer, the Chicago picture addresses many pictorial issues successfully enough that it can be counted among the doubt-filled artist’s fully resolved pictures.
Another picture of the type, Pêches, poires et raisin, often dated 1879-1880, is now in the Hermitage Museum. In it, the compositional complexities of the Chicago picture are reduced in number, creating a true prototype for the present work. Yet, even considering the group of similarly composed paintings of the mid 1880s (Rewald 456, 458, 560, 562, and 564), nothing in them truly prepares us for the radical purity of the present work.
In each of the precedent pictures, the dish lies more-or-less correctly in illusionistic space, like a ‘normal’ still-life, forcing us to recognise the extraordinary compositional and philosophical boldness of Nature morte de pêches et poires. In it, the plate is so dramatically tilted toward the vertical axis of the picture plane that we simply cannot accept it as normal, and, as if Cézanne recognised its difficulties, he never again approached the compositional boldness of the present work.
Indeed, one must look forward to the considerably later still-life compositions of apples by Henri Matisse painted in 1916, two versions of which exist in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chrysler Museum. In them, Matisse eschewed the dish altogether and painted the top of the round table on which the apples are arranged as virtually a perfect circle on the surface of the painting. Only Matisse seems to have realised Cézanne’s radical pictorial dare. Indeed, it is perfectly possible that the younger artist actually saw the Cézanne at Vollard’s Paris gallery, which he haunted in the years during which the dealer acquired the picture and before he sold it in 1904.
When confronting this painting, with its perfect orbs of fruit in yellow, orange and green, we have no fear that they will tumble, so perfectly are they kept in place by what can only be called Cézanne’s compositional genius. Indeed, the diagonal centre of the composition is between the upper central peach and the one to its right, thereby activating not merely the spheres, but the mysterious spaces between them. The green pear on the left lacks a proper right edge, and its green slides into the void.
Cézanne wrote very little, especially in the decade of the 1880s when the present work was painted. Most of his letters were to his childhood friend, the great writer Émile Zola, and record a peripatetic life filled with doubt. Only one letter, to the collector, Victor Chocquet, the first collector to recognise Cézanne’s genius, offers a glimpse into the world of struggle and doubt that overcame him in the 1880s before the death of his father in 1888.
‘I should have liked to have your stable outlook,’ he writes to Chocquet, ‘Fate has not endowed me with an equal stability… When it comes to the realisation of wishes for the simplest things which really ought to come about by themselves,… it would seem that my unhappy lot is for success to be spoiled.’ (Letter of 11 May 1886, translated by A. Danchev, The Letters of Paul Cézanne, London, 2013, pp. 244-5).
Fortunately for us, Cézanne, while struggling again and again to resolve all the inherent tensions of pictorial representations, occasionally did succeed, and, if there is a candidate for such success, surely it is this modest and truly brilliant still-life. Cézanne never painted before or was never to paint again such a perfect picture.
Dr. Richard Brettell is the Founding Director of The Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and The Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair, as well as co-Director of the Center for The Interdisciplinary Study of Museums in the University of Texas at Dallas. This piece is written in honour of his late friend, Alex Danchev.
‘Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, the greens against the reds, the yellows against the blues, tipping, turning, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be using coins of one or two sous for the purpose. He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions; one guessed that it was a feast for the eye to him’ -Louis Le Bail
‘I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art in museums’ -Paul Cézanne
‘If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that Cézanne’s remarkable example gave me all my life. In moments of doubt, when I was still searching for myself, frightened sometimes by my discoveries, I thought, “If Cézanne is right, I am right,” because I knew that Cézanne made no mistake’ -Henri Matisse
I proceed very slowly,’ Cézanne once explained, ‘for nature reveals herself to me in a very complex form, and constant progress must be made. One must see one’s model correctly and experience it in the right way, and furthermore, express oneself with distinction and strength’ (Cézanne, quoted in J. Rewald, Cézanne, A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 159). The results of these intensive and prolonged deliberations are manifestly evident in the present Nature morte de pêches et poires, a painting of consummate formal inventiveness, orchestrated with the very simplest of means. Rejecting the contrivances of his more highly wrought, ‘symphonic’ still-lifes, Cézanne here pared down his composition to a dish of beautifully coloured fruits, set atop a bare wooden table in a shallow space—motifs so spare and pure as to border upon abstraction.
By the mid-1880s, when he painted this exquisitely restrained and refined canvas, Cézanne had detached himself decisively from the Impressionist goal of capturing the ephemeral appearance of a motif and sought instead to impose an ideal pictorial logic on the vagaries of the natural world—‘to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring,’ he claimed, ‘like the art in museums’ (Cézanne, quoted in P.M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 169). Here, he marshalled his principal subjects—five peaches and single pear—into a low, stable pyramid, which he centred in turn within the primal, self-contained roundness of the plate. The table extends the full width of the canvas, creating a rectilinear framework that contrasts with the globular forms of the fruit. The plate, tipped slightly toward the viewer, rises to the rear edge of the table but stops just short of breaching the ‘horizon’ line; the rear wall introduces a vertical counterpoint and a note of asymmetry, which reinforce by way of contrast the banded simplicity of the overall pictorial structure.
To the right of the plate is a second pear, an ostensibly errant fruit, here positioned with nary a hint of imbalance or instability. The two pears, painted with the same luxuriant grassy green, form echoing cool accents within the overall warm tonality of the image; the viewer’s eye moves back and forth between them on a discreet diagonal, lending a subtle dynamism to this composition of perfect coherence. ‘Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, the greens against the reds, the yellows against the blues, tipping, turning, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be using coins of one or two sous for the purpose,’ recalled the painter Louis Le Bail, who once had occasion to watch Cézanne at work. ‘He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions; one guessed that it was a feast for the eye to him’ (L. Le Bail, quoted in G. Adriani, Cézanne Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Tübingen, 1993, p. 172).
As in his contemporaneous landscape practice, Cézanne’s constructive transformation of the still-life motif provided him with a framework in which to organise and reproduce his wealth of sensations before nature. In the present canvas, each fruit is a singular piece of painting, a unique object, with its own nuances of rich colour and transitions of light and shade. The peach to the far left, for instance, is a radiant yellow-orange hue, while its closest neighbour runs the gamut of sunset tones, from orange to red to dusky mauve. The peaches all tilt their own way, like rotating orbs; the fine crease that travels the circumference of each fruit through the stem end emphasises the absolute form of the sphere. ‘In order to make progress, there is only nature, and the eye educates itself by contact with nature,’ Cézanne insisted. ‘In an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point; and this point is always—despite the tremendous effect: light and shadow, sensations colourants—the closest to our eye’ (Cézanne, quoted in A. Danchev, Cézanne, A Life, New York, 2012, p. 158).
The carefully calibrated equilibrium of Nature morte de pêches et poires stands in stark contrast to the unrelenting emotional turbulence that subsumed Cézanne’s personal life during the mid-1880s, when he painted this exceptional canvas. Since the beginning of the decade, the artist had been living in near-total isolation in the south of France, peregrinating between his family home near Aix and the seaside refuge of L’Estaque. With the exception of a brief stint at Gardanne, his long-time companion Hortense Fiquet and the couple’s son Paul remained in Paris, far from the disapproving eye of Cézanne’s domineering father. In the spring of 1885, the artist had a brief, disastrous affair with an unidentified woman in Aix, which drew to a painful end by August. ‘For me, there is complete isolation,’ Cézanne lamented to his childhood friend and confidant Zola. ‘The brothel in town, or something like that, but nothing more’ (Cézanne, quoted in J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1976, p. 221).
The following year brought further unrest. In April 1886, Zola sent Cézanne a copy of his new novel L’Oeuvre, whose tragic protagonist Claude Lantier was a failed artistic genius, tormented by ideas that he was incapable of realising on canvas. Zola’s portrait of the deluded artist struck Cézanne as an intensely personal attack and brought an abrupt end to their friendship. A few weeks later, Cézanne unexpectedly married Hortense, risking disinheritance to regularise their relationship at long last. The year’s final upheaval came in October, when Cézanne’s father took ill and died, leaving the artist a welter of unresolved emotions. ‘I should have liked to have your stable outlook which allows you to reach the desired end with certainty,’ Cézanne lamented to the collector Victor Chocquet. ‘Fate has not endowed me with an equal stability, that is the only regret I have about the things of this earth’ (Cézanne, quoted in ibid., p. 225).
Throughout this chaotic period, however, Cézanne’s propensity for rigorous and sustained work never flagged. His solution to his myriad problems—isolation—cut him off from his avant-garde colleagues, but also provided the secret laboratory in which he could develop his art, moving with great deliberation toward permanence, immutability, and monumentality of form. ‘Cézanne deliberately withdrew to engage in an intense and solitary struggle with painting,’ Véronique Serrano has written, ‘a struggle whose outcome radically altered the painted image and our perception of it for many years to come’ (V. Serrano, in P. Conisbee, D. Coutagne, et al., Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 136).
The fruits in the present Nature morte serve as vessels for Cézanne’s most profound, sublimated emotions at this moment of personal flux and creative discovery. All but a single pear, once again, are closely clustered within the protective embrace of the round plate, endowed with the relational stability that Cézanne so envied in his friend Chocquet. The outlier pear—a surrogate, surely, for the artist himself— sits just outside the fold, as close as possible to the plate without actually making contact and relinquishing autonomy. The base of the pear rests decisively on the tabletop, but the stem inclines toward the dish with a gentle, poignant yearning; the closest peach seems to reciprocate this tentative advance, turning to face the pear with its own stem end. The peaches are tantalisingly sensual, rendered with a velvety, caressing touch and a rich local colour rarely found in Cézanne’s paintings of nude flesh. The blue border of the plate, however, marks out a boundary that keeps them just beyond reach of the heroically isolated pear.
A second pear on the far left stretches its thin stem upward like an antenna, straining to catch a glimpse of the only other fruit of its kind in the composition. Perhaps we should see here Cézanne’s son Paul, then in his early teens, safely nurtured within the maternal bosom but connected to his father at a distance by an intangible thread. ‘In this carefully arranged society of perfectly submissive things,’ Meyer Schapiro has written, ‘the painter could project typical relations of human beings as well as qualities of the larger visible world—solitude, contact, accord, conflict, serenity, abundance, and luxury—and even states of elation and enjoyment’ (M. Schapiro, Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, New York, 1978, pp. 30-31). Cézanne himself put it more simply: ‘Ils se parlent, ses gens-là’—‘They talk to each other, those folks’—referring to the various fruits in his still-lifes (Cézanne, quoted in E.E. Rathbone & G.T.M. Shackelford, eds., Impressionist Still Life, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 41).
By the time that Cézanne painted the present, richly resonant canvas, it had been nearly a decade since he had last shown his work publicly, at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. Virtually the only showcase for his art throughout the 1880s was the tiny shop of Père Tanguy in Paris; most of his paintings were in the possession of family members, childhood friends, and fellow artists, as well as a few collectors he knew personally. That all changed in 1895, however, when the shrewd young dealer Ambroise Vollard mounted the first solo exhibition of Cézanne’s work, catapulting the legendarily reclusive artist out of relative obscurity with a single stroke. Vollard acquired the present painting directly from Cézanne and sold it to the German collector Kurt von Metzenbecher in 1904, two years before the artist’s death.
During Cézanne’s final decade, he exhibited his work widely both in Paris and abroad, attracting the reverence of a whole new generation of avant-garde painters, who in their own work affirmed, exalted, and further advanced his abstract, synthetic vision. One artist who may well have seen and admired the present canvas was Henri Matisse, who frequented Vollard’s shop on the rue Laffitte beginning in 1899; his own later still-life Pommes (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia) constitutes a veritable homage to Cézanne’s volumetric fruit-bowls. ‘If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that Cézanne’s remarkable example gave me all my life,’ Matisse later declared. ‘In moments of doubt, when I was still searching for myself, frightened sometimes by my discoveries, I thought, “If Cézanne is right, I am right,” because I knew that Cézanne made no mistake’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 80).