Reflections in art: 5 – Explaining Cézanne’s discrepancies

Paul Cézanne, La maison du Père Lacroix, Auvers-sur-Oise (1873) R201, oil on canvas, 61.5 x 51 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Chester Dale Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last two articles in this series, I have shown how Cézanne’s depictions of reflections on water have numerous discrepancies from those expected from optical principles, something which – at least until the twentieth century – is unique among painters. I explored these issues for three of the most prominent examples, and in a further six works with a summary of many others.

This article starts to consider possible explanations.

The role of reflections on water in landscape painting

Long rated the most inferior of painting genres, painting reflections on water has always been considered to be among the most technically demanding tasks in the landscape genre. Among even ‘serious’ amateurs, realist landscape painters often use reflections as a display of technical prowess, the artist’s tour de force.

Painting optically-accurate reflections is generally recognised as being a difficult task for most painters, and some find it almost impossible. There are numerous tutorials available which aim to ‘improve’ this, and to ‘cure’ painters of problems which they have been suffering from. Examples include Artists Network, Art & Fine Art Tips, Craftsy, Paint with Len, and thousands more. A Google search on ‘how to paint reflections in water’ returned a total of 1,890,000 results.

A long-standing adage among realist painters is the exhortation to “paint what you see”, not what you think you see or know, and the optically-faithful depiction of reflections is one of the clearest examples of its benefits to the realist who is painting in front of the motif. Note that Poussin (below) painted his landscapes in the studio, and on occasion made very small errors in their reflections.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Optically faithful reflections are also generally held to have high aesthetic value among both those painting them, and those viewing the paintings. Some popular locations, most notably Venice, are painted largely because of their profuse and ‘interesting’ reflections. These values extend to photography, where there are far lesser technical challenges in ‘getting reflections right’, of course.

Photograph of extensive reflections on water, Lac Besson, Alpe d’Huez. EHN & DIJ Oakley.

With the rise in popularity of landscape painting among both amateurs and professionals during the nineteenth century, there is every reason to believe that these opinions on reflections held good throughout Cézanne’s career, and there is evidence of this in contemporary publications and the practice of major landscape painters during the nineteenth century, including Pissarro, Sisley, Monet, and John Singer Sargent (below).

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Rio dei Mendicanti, Venice (c 1909), watercolor and pencil on off-white paper, 37.1 x 52.1 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Wikimedia Commons.

Did Cézanne deliberately and volitionally paint discrepant reflections?

Where modern critics and commentators have noticed the discrepancies in reflections in Cézanne’s paintings – and it is shocking how seldom that appears to be the case – they have almost universally accounted for them in terms of the artist’s intent. That is, they have given explanations as to why they consider Cézanne deliberately painted reflections in that way.

Although some of these explanations are interesting and ingenious, there is not a shred of contemporary or later evidence that Cézanne did paint discrepant reflections intentionally. He makes no reference to this issue in any of his writings or reports by third-parties of his work, for instance.

Paul Cézanne, Marine (1864) RWC004, pencil and watercolour on paper, 17 x 22.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

During Cézanne’s 46 years recorded career of painting, his intent and style changed very considerably. Despite those changes, one constant appears to have been the discrepancies in his reflections. From his earliest realist work (above), through his early couillarde period, in his Impressionist paintings, and at all times of his Post-Impressionism (below), those discrepancies continued.

Paul Cézanne, Maison au bord de l’eau (1900-4) RWC540, watercolour and graphite on paper, 29.8 x 46.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

To try to explain the discrepancies in every single painting of reflections as being the artist’s intent is an impossible task, and those who have attempted to do so for individual works can hardly generalise from those interpretations to encompass all the others.

Did Cézanne simply not care about reflections?

Paul Cézanne, Le Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) (1896) (R805), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) (P.1932.SC.60). Wikimedia Commons.

Probably the most extraordinary comment is that of the late Professor John House (2008), writing about Le Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) (1896) (above): “Cézanne took no interest in the specific play of reflections that played so central a part in the art of Claude Monet, whose work he nevertheless greatly admired.”

I hope that – whatever the explanation for these discrepancies – I have shown sufficient evidence to convince you that Cézanne had a career-long interest in the depiction of reflections on water. If he had not, it would be most peculiar that he should choose to paint such reflections in around 5% of his oil paintings.

The material evidence suggests that Cézanne was very interested in reflections on water. To state otherwise would be as contrary as claiming that he had no interest in bathers, or Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

What are his most consistent discrepancies?

The most consistent discrepancy is the horizontal shift of the reflected image to the right of the real image, by a distance of slightly less than 1 cm.

After that, there is a wide range of mismatches between the depicted real and reflected images which cannot readily be simplified into groups. However, there are two less frequent matters which are of greater significance: violation of depth order (which is exceptional in paintings prior to Cubism), and the presence of pentimenti in the reflection, showing that Cézanne made alterations to an earlier attempt to paint the reflected image. These are suggestive of a struggle to paint what he intended to, as he frequently referred to in his letters.

In anyone else, what would these discrepancies indicate?

In other painters’ work, these discrepancies would be considered to be errors, resulting from the artist’s lack of understanding of optical principles, inexperience at painting reflections, attempts to paint reflections when they cannot see the reflection in front of them (e.g. in the studio and from memory), and/or an inability to paint reflections on water.

Another group of potential problems which could make the painting of reflections very difficult, and result in frequent errors, are disorders of vision.

From about 1890, Cézanne is believed to have suffered from diabetes (mellitus), which has a range of potential consequences on vision (in the retina of the eyes), and on peripheral nerves. Although it has been claimed that Cézanne’s paintings of Montagne Saint-Victoire provide evidence that his vision was deteriorating late in his life, Marmor and Ravin (2009) argue that other paintings from the same period show no such evidence, and conclude that any changes observed were a matter of artistic choice.

As the discrepancies in his reflections remained throughout his career, and there is nothing to suggest that they became worse or more common after 1890, it is very unlikely that they were the result of his diabetes, or any progressive impairment in vision.

The most likely reason for these discrepancies

If they were not intentional, and not the result of a regular medical condition, but part of Cézanne’s lifelong struggle to paint as he wanted to, they most probably occurred for the same reason that others have apparently insurmountable problems painting reflections. These most probably occur because of neuro-behavioural differences, which have been observed in individuals who have been asked to draw reflected objects, for instance, during psychological experiments.

To understand how this occurred, we need to consider the neural mechanisms involved in painting realistically, both when in front of the motif, and from memory: those will be the subject of the next article in this series.


House J (2008) “Le Lac d’Annecy”, pp 102-105 in S Buck et al. The Courtauld Cézannes, Paul Holberton Publishing, London.
Marmor MF & Ravin JG (2009) The Artist’s Eyes, Vision and the History of Art, Abrams. ISBN 978 0 8109 4849 5.
Nasar JL & Li M (2004) Landscape mirror: the attractiveness of reflecting water, Landscape and Urban Planning 66: 233-238. Available here.