Truth in (landscape) painting 3

Paul Cézanne has been repeatedly described as the ‘father’ of several of the major movements in painting which dominated its development in the twentieth century. Whether you particularly like his landscape works or not, he was a great influence and repays careful study.

Over his 40 years or so of intensive work, he painted in several distinct styles, although reading some accounts this often seems to have been elided or even overlooked. Unlike most of his contemporaries and successors, Cézanne did not explain what he was trying to do in any clear account. His sketchbooks were divided up after his death, and sold piecemeal, making it very hard to trace the development of his major paintings, and he did not appear to keep any records of the dates of creation of his paintings, or other relevant details. Indeed, as he seldom signed his paintings, but often made revisions to them months or years after starting, we usually do not know whether he considered them complete, or even if he accepted the concept of completion of a painting.

Most of the descriptions of his painting techniques and objectives come from others, often writing long after they claimed to have observed him. By the time that these came to be published, Cézanne and his paintings had become something of a myth, in which the objective evidence had become lost in an overlay of interpretation.

These accounts are all highly suspect, as most were written by those with investments in the Cézanne myth (dealers, critics, and collectors), or by painters whose styles had diverged considerably. Furthermore if there is one thing clear above all else, Cézanne almost never allowed anyone to watch him painting, which begs the question as to where these commentators obtained their information about his technique.

Working out what Cézanne actually did is therefore fraught with difficulty, and our only reliable evidence, beyond the limited information that he left us in his letters, are his paintings. It is therefore puzzling that there have been few detailed objective studies of his paintings, such as that of Elisabeth Reissner (Ways of Making: Practice and Innovation in Cézanne’s Paintings in the National Gallery, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 29, 2008).

Paul Cézanne, Le bac à Bonnières (1866), Rewald no. 96, oil on canvas, 38 x 61 cm. Musée Faure, Aix-les-Bains (WikiArt).
Paul Cézanne, Le bac à Bonnières (1866), Rewald no. 96, oil on canvas, 38 x 61 cm. Musée Faure, Aix-les-Bains (WikiArt).

Cézanne started painting, essentially self-taught, in the early 1860s. Although he aligned himself with the Impressionists, and met many of them including Pissarro at that time, he was something of an outsider, and his style quite different. His paintings were generally dark, many had themes of violence or sex (or both), and most appear to have been painted with palette knives rather than brushes: this style is known as couillarde, or ‘ballsy’. Among the few landscapes of that period is his view of Bonnières (1866), which bears fairly close resemblance to the physical reality which he would have seen at the time.

He started painting outdoors, plein air, alongside Camille Pissarro from about 1872, and as a result quickly developed a style more typical of an Impressionist. A particularly telling step is that in 1872, he borrowed one of Pissarro’s landscapes of Louveciennes and made a copy of it – copying a Master’s work being an accepted way of learning their technique, and something that he had done in the previous decade with other Masters’ works in the Louvre. Cézanne then painted many more landscapes, and they became rich in colour and light. Among his early Impressionist work, his painting of the house of Père Lacroix in 1873 is something of a turning point in style.

Paul Cézanne, La maison du Père Lacroix, Auvers-sur-Oise (1873), Rewald no. 201, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 51 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Chester Dale Collection (WikiArt).
Paul Cézanne, La maison du Père Lacroix, Auvers-sur-Oise (1873), Rewald no. 201, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 51 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Chester Dale Collection (WikiArt).

However close examination reveals that he did encounter some difficulties when painting it. For example, the cast shadows on the roofs imply a wide range of solar elevations. This is an issue which often affects those still learning how to paint plein air. Early plein air painters in the Roman Campagna knew that they had to capture their motifs as quickly as possible, as the light changed. If you take more than an hour or so to paint a view, you have to make a decision as to when you depict light conditions and shadows, and ‘freeze’ the image in your mind at that point. If you do not, as time passes, so the light and shadows change, and your painting becomes internally inconsistent.

However this inconsistency in the cast shadows shown here confirms that Cézanne was attempting to paint an accurate depiction of the motif, perhaps even a little too accurate without ‘freezing’ the light and shadows at an arbitrary time.

Cézanne campaigned in the environs of Paris with Pissarro and others during the 1870s and 1880s, working in his Impressionist style, also painting landscapes in a similar style in the south of France when he was at his family home near Aix-en-Provence, and on the coast at l’Estaque. His brilliant depiction of the pool at the family home of Jas de Bouffan is a good example of his use of colour, and faithfulness to the details in the motif during this period.

Paul Cézanne, Le bassin du Jas de Bouffan (1876), Rewald no. 278, oil on canvas, 49 x 55 cm. Dr. Otto Krebs, Weimar, Germany (presently at The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) (WikiArt).
Paul Cézanne, Le bassin du Jas de Bouffan (1876), Rewald no. 278, oil on canvas, 49 x 55 cm. Dr. Otto Krebs, Weimar, Germany (presently at The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) (WikiArt).

Pissarro was a very important influence on Cézanne, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider his approach to ‘truth’ in painting. Contemporary critics praised Pissarro’s faithful copying of his motifs, writing:
“In certain ways, Pissarro is a realist. He will never compose a picture, and will not rearrange nature in a landscape. A landscape on a canvas, for him, must be the exact reproduction of a natural scene and the portrait of a corner of the world.”
(Théodore Doret, quoted in Camille Pissarro, by his great-grandson Joachim Pissarro, 1993.)

This flies in the face of Reynolds and Constable; although at first sight such an English approach might seem alien to French landscape painting in the nineteenth century, Pissarro saw himself as following in the brushstrokes of Daubigny, and Daubigny in those of Constable (Pissarro, 1993), so it appears quite likely that the English ideas had crossed the Channel.

Recent studies of Pissarro have disputed this, concluding that he was not mimetic in his approach, but more like Constable:
[Pissarro] “altered the size, character, length, and gradient of the street as well as the relative positions of the buildings that lined it.” “Pissarro did not view nature photographically.” (Richard Brettell, quoted in Pissarro, 1993.)

My own opinion is to the contrary. Whilst Joachim Pissarro considers that the reflections shown in The Marne at Chennevières (1864-5) “do not duplicate the real world” and move “very close to abstraction”, on careful examination I consider that his depiction of reflections there seems to be entirely in accordance with likely natural appearance. I also disagree with Brettell: whilst Pissarro does appear to have made some small changes in certain paintings, by and large his work shows strong evidence of trying to depict his motifs with great accuracy.

Brettell’s obvious example concerns the omission of a house at the extreme right edge of a painting of snow conditions, early in his career (1872). It is perfectly feasible that this small change was made to avoid a compositional problem of that house being at the edge. In another pair of paintings from around 1870, Pissarro seems to have omitted a tree in the left foreground. Again this is a small change which he might have felt resulted in significant compositional improvement.

There are only three ways in which we can objectively assess the ‘truth’ of a landscape painting:

  • compare the painting with a contemporary photograph of the motif,
  • compare the painting with an identical view painted at the same time by a different painter,
  • compare two or more paintings by the same artist, depicting the same view.

Although comparison with photographs might seem relatively simple, and with the development of photography and its use for postcards during the nineteenth century this becomes increasingly feasible, it can also cause many problems. A photograph taken from a slightly different position using a lens giving a field of view very different from that shown in the painting, can all lead to misleading conclusions.

The best example of this is in the work of Erle Loran, who developed an elaborate theory of Cézanne’s spatial representation in paintings on the basis of photographs of his motifs (Cézanne’s Composition. Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of his Motifs, New Edition, 2006). As shown subsequently by Alain Mothe (Ce Que Voyait Cézanne, 2011), and at length in Pavel Machotka’s books (notably Cézanne: Landscape into Art, Revised Edition, 2014), Cézanne did not distort his representation of motifs as much as might at first appear, and Loran is now largely superseded.

John Rewald’s monumental account of the origins and development of Impressionism (The History of Impressionism, 4th edition, 1973) is particularly useful for putting side by side paintings of the same motif by different artists, although sadly because of its age most are in monochrome. Where there are visible differences, this does not of course reveal which was the more faithful to the motif.

In Pissarro’s case, the most valuable of these three methods is the comparison of paintings in series. From his early years at Louveciennes to the last few years of his life, Pissarro excelled in painting series showing almost identical views of the same motif under different lighting, weather, and seasonal conditions – examples include those of the Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, in 1897, and l’Avenue de l’Opera, Paris, in 1898-9. Careful comparison of these reveals how astonishingly consistently he represented passages in each series, even down to fine details. Anyone who has painted series knows how different they can readily become, but in Pissarro’s case the differences are surprisingly small.

Returning to Cézanne, whose only landscape series was of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and will be discussed in the next posting in this series, modern objective evidence is that during the period of his Impressionist style, he attempted to be as faithful as possible to his motifs, certainly within the limits set by Reynolds and Constable, and possibly as close as those of Pissarro. He showed no tendency towards abstraction, or other traits to satisfy those who would try to make him a ‘modernist’, during his Impressionist period.

Paul Cézanne, Le pont de Maincy (1879-80), Rewald no. 436, oil on canvas, 58.5 x 72.5 cm. Musée d'Orsay, Paris (WikiArt).
Paul Cézanne, Le pont de Maincy (1879-80), Rewald no. 436, oil on canvas, 58.5 x 72.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris (WikiArt).

My last example for this posting is something of a precursor for Cézanne’s final style, in which his oil paintings consisted mainly of patches of colour constructed from groups of parallel brushstrokes, dubbed by Rewald his ‘constructive stroke’. His depiction of the Bridge at Maincy (1879) is an early example, where this approach has been used to construct the foliage in the upper part of the painting. By the mid-1890s his paintings were dominated by this, for example in Paysage au Bord de l’Eau (1895-8, Rewald no. 722).

Although other Impressionists experimented with radically different ‘facture’, some including Pissarro later painstakingly building their paintings from tiny dots or marks of the brush (‘pointillism’), for Cézanne this marked his departure from Impressionism, and the establishment of his own, unique style. Its physical limitations had significant impact on how ‘truthful’ to the motif his paintings could be. At the same time, Cézanne increasingly used watercolour as his medium of choice. I will consider those next.