A great deal happened in and to still life painting in the nineteenth century, and one of most important of them was the prolific painting of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who today is better known for his landscapes. A lot has already been written about Cézanne’s art in general, and his still lifes in particular. Instead of trying to summarise that, I here show what should have been ten examples, but somehow just grew to thirteen before I forced myself to stop.
From the earliest years of his painting, Cézanne made still lifes of greater quality than other genres.
In 1867-69, when his other paintings were made coarsely with a knife, he painted this dark but effective Still Life with Kettle in oils. Using relatively coarse brushstrokes, he conveys surface texture and highlights effectively. He also shows his career-long disregard for conventional perspective projection, which was to come to dominate his later paintings.
He painted The Black Marble Clock a little later, in 1869-71, when his facture was even rougher. The clock here is the more remarkable for its absence of hands.
As Cézanne moved towards Impressionism in the early 1870s, he painted this Small Delft Vase with Flowers (1873). He makes no attempt to capture the finer detail of the decoration on the vase, and the flowers are loose in form and brilliant in colour. Two fallen petals are seen next to the base of the vase.
His Milk Container, Carafe and Bowl from 1879-80 marks the start of his mature period, in which he became particularly fond of painting apples and other fruit. Each object here is drawn in with a near-black outline, and they lack depth despite retaining shadows, providing mixed visual cues.
It was during this period that Cézanne started to paint some of his most experimental work in watercolour, such as these Three Pears from about 1888-90. Outline forms have become more prominent, with centrifugal application of colour washes, leaving the central areas of objects as white space.
This approach transforms his Pot and Soup Tureen from 1888-90, with strokes and flares of more intense colour on a dense graphite sketch emphasising form.
His oil still lifes, such as this Basket of Apples from 1890-94, remained more conventional in approach, although they continue to defy convention in their perspective.
At a time when his other paintings reflected the deepening troubles he experienced after 1890, still lifes such as these Terracotta Pots and Flowers from 1891-92 appeared to develop almost independently. His application of oil paint is here more like that of watercolour, although this doesn’t share his centrifugal application of colour and central white space.
Some of his late still lifes set out to challenge perspective to the point where they become quite disorientating. Among these are a series he painted of the small statue in this Still Life with Cherub in Plaster from about 1895. There is no resolution to the conflicting signs of depth, with a more distant apple the same size as those in the foreground, and what should be planes tilting wildly upwards. Not one line here is truly perpendicular.
Later still, Cézanne’s Still Life with a Curtain (c 1898) is a little less out of kilter, and reinforces the crumpled forms of the white cloths with the patterned curtain behind.
Cézanne also painted a series of different arrangements of skulls, here in his Pyramid of Skulls (1898-1900), for example. These could be considered a development of the vanitas painting, as his thoughts turned towards the end of his life. These skulls have been preserved in his studio in a suburb of Aix-en-Provence.
My personal favourites of all Cézanne’s still life paintings are his late watercolours, including the vibrant primary colours of this Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard from 1900-6.
Perhaps the finest of all is this Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit from 1906, the year of his death. The fruit follow his centrifugal use of colour, the carafe is merely outlined in strokes of ghostly blue, as are the grapes in the centre. The wine bottle, though, has full colour apart from its label.
Still life paintings were an essential part of Cézanne’s art, and from what I see even more fascinating and enigmatic than his landscapes.