Still Life History: 7 Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (1906), watercolour and soft graphite on pale buff wove paper, 48 x 62.5 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Nature morte à la bouilloire (Still life with kettle) (1867-69), oil on canvas, 64 x 81 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), La Pendule noire (The Black Marble Clock) (1869-71), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Bouquet au petit Delft (Small Delft Vase with Flowers) (1873), oil on canvas, 41 x 27 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Boîte à lait, carafe et bol (1879–80), oil on canvas, 45 x 54 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Three Pears (c 1888-90), watercolour, gouache, and graphite on cream laid paper, 24.2 x 31 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Pot and Soup Tureen (1888-90), pencil and watercolour on paper, 12.3 x 21.5 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館, Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Le panier de pommes (Basket of Apples) (1890-94), oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Pots en terre cuite et fleurs (Terracotta Pots and Flowers) (1891-92), oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73.3 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and Merion, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Nature morte avec l’Amour en plâtre (Still life with Cherub in plaster) (c 1895), oil on paper, 70 x 57 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Still Life with a Curtain (c 1898), oil on canvas, 55 x 74.5 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Pyramid of Skulls (1898-1900), oil on canvas, 39 × 46.5 cm, Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard (1900-6), watercolour on paper, 47.9 x 62.9 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. WikiArt.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Still Life with Apples on a Sideboard (1900-6), watercolour on paper, 47.9 x 62.9 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. WikiArt.

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.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (1906), watercolour and soft graphite on pale buff wove paper, 48 x 62.5 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

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.