One may take as typical works of the period we are about to consider--a period which extends to beyond the middle of the 'eighties--a series of still-lifes. Before certain portraits and landscapes of Cézanne's maturity, before so impressive a masterpiece of genre painting as the Cardplayers, it would sound blasphemous to speak of our artist as a painter of still-life pictures, but none the less it is noteworthy that he is distinguished among artists of the highest rank by the fact that he devoted so large a part of his time to this class of picture, that he achieved in still-life the expression of the most exalted feelings and the deepest intuitions of his nature.
Rembrandt alone, and that only in the rarest examples, or in accessories, can be compared to him in this respect. For one cannot deny that Cézanne gave a new character to his still-lifes. Nothing else but still-life allowed him sufficient calm and leisure, and admitted all the delays which were necessary to him for plumbing the depths of his idea. But there, before the still-life, put together not with too ephemeral flowers, but with onions, apples, or other robust and longenduring fruits, he could pursue till it was exhausted his probing analysis of the chromatic whole. But through the bewildering labyrinth of this analysis he held always, like Ariadne's thread, the notion that changes of colour correspond to movements of planes. He sought always to trace this correspondence throughout all the diverse modifications which changes of local colour introduced into the observed resultant.
No doubt this idea of colour as revealing plasticity was far from new. Leonardo da Vinci had not only noticed the diverse colouring of the diversely orientated planes of an object, he had even given the scientific explanation. The Impressionist picture existed already, if not on canvas, at least in his writings. But for the most part artists gave but casual attention to these phenomena, and certainly preferred other methods of suggesting to the eye the plasticity of objects. So that to the majority even of picture-lovers the truths which the Impressionists stated appeared to be insane paradoxes.
By the true Impressionists, by men like Cézanne's companions at Auvers, Guillaumin and Pissaro, those changes of colour which correspond to movements of planes were vigorously expressed, but they were more concerned to seize the full complexity of the coloured mosaic of vision than to isolate and emphasize those indications in the total complex which are evocative of plastic form. They sought to weave across their canvas the unbroken weft of colour which their eyes had learned to perceive in nature. But this aim could not altogether satisfy such a nature as Cézanne's. The intellect is bound to seek for articulations. In order to handle nature's continuity it has to be conceived as discontinuous; without organization, without articulation the intellect gets no leverage. And with Cézanne the intellect --or, to be more exact, the intellectual part of his sensual reactions--claimed its full rights.
From this point of view we may regard the history of art as a perpetual attempt at reconciling the claims of the understanding with the appearances of nature as revealed to the eye at each successive period. Each new discovery in the world of visual experience tends to invalidate the constructions which had proved adequate theretofore, and the spirit is bound to reconstruct its shelter, taking into account the new data. This was notably the case with the new data supplied by the Impressionist discipline of the eye.
Some artists were so enamoured of these new visual truths that it was sufficient for them merely to state and restate them in all their complexity. Monet Haystacks and Water-lilies are there to prove it. But the greater spirits in this group sought from the very first to draw from these experiences the basis for new constructions. With Cézanne this need proclaimed itself as more urgent and imperious than with Renoir and Degas themselves. Scarcely had he grasped the principles of Impressionism before he set himself to utilize them for further ends. And it is perhaps most evidently in this series of still-lifes that he arrived at a synthesis based on the new analysis of atmospheric colour.
Those critics who like to speculate and generalize must often regret that the genre of still-life has been so rarely cultivated throughout the course of European art, so much less, in fact, than was the case in China. Because it is in the still-life that we frequently catch the purest self-revelation of the artist. In any other subject humanity intervenes. It is almost impossible that other men should not influence the artist by their prejudices and partizanship. If the artist rebels against these, the act of rebellion is itself a deformation of his idea. If he disregards them and frees himself from all the commonplaces of sentiment, the effort still leaves its traces on his design. But the still-life excludes all these questions and guards the picture itself from the misconstructions of those whose contact with art is confined to its effect as representation.
In still-life the ideas and emotions associated with the objects represented are, for the most part, so utterly commonplace and insignificant that neither artist nor spectator need consider them. It is this fact that makes the still-life so valuable to the critic as a gauge of the artist's personality. How many obscure points in Raphael's artistic psychology might be cleared up if we had a series of stilllifes by him. How fascinating to see what Castagno or Piero della Francesca would have accomplished. One can almost guess at the superb revelations of painter's quality which Luca Signorelli would have supplied.
There are, of course, exceptions to this purely plastic significance of still-life. The symbolist, by a careful choice of objects and by arranging for them a special pictorial context, can force them to reveal some entirely non-plastic emotion. There are also rare cases where an artist has so intensely dramatic a manner that by a special emphasis he can give, even to the still-life, a kind of dramatic significance. Goya, for instance, once painted a plucked fowl in such a way as to suggest an atrocious tragedy, to make it a companion piece to one of his "Desastros de la guerra."
Paul Cézanne, Impressionism, Paul Cézanne Biography, Cézanne Paintings, Cézanne Drawings, The Card Players, Bathers, Still Life with Quince, The Artist's Father, Jules Payron, Self Portrait with Palette, Road Curve in Montgerount, Painter at Work, L'Estaque, Study of Apples and Lemon, Bridge in the Forest, Portrait of the Artist's Son, Still Life Bowl of Apples, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, Village of Gardanne, Bathsheba, Medea, Madame Cézanne Sewing, Le Lac Annecy, Three Bathers, Still Life with Apples and Oranges, Blue Landscape, Still Life with Apples and Peaches
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