The Drawings of Cézanne: The Advance of Color and Line


Drawing, the most transparent of the fine arts, has a strange way of revealing the innate sensibility of its practitioner. Mistakes cannot be corrected as easily as in painting; Cézanne, whose draftsmanship is as important to his achievement as his painting, reworked his drawings to that the “error” was incorporated into the final composition. In the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some 250 drawings give the viewer a chance to see a great artist actively thinking, working out figures and landscapes in ways that demonstrate his remarkable skill, developed over the decades of his career, and his ability to establish a theme even in his short sketches. What began as coarse versions of violent and erotic mythological narratives grew slowly but surely into increasingly clear and spare visions of nature, culminating in the great watercolors celebrating Mont Sainte Victoire (toward the end of the show there is a gallery wall with several versions of the mountain). Cézanne did not begin as a great artist; the early work is dense and thick and dark, being nearly overwhelmed by the inexperience of the artist’s hand, as well as psychic issues that pushed the work in the direction of a coarse expressionism. But by the beginnings of the 20th century, through 1906, the year the artist died, Cézanne had moved into a space of extraordinary refinement and embellished structure. Thus, he moved from inchoate feeling and form into a visionary treatment of what he saw.

Part of this refinement is based on the sensitivity of graphite’s varying line, as well as watercolor’s innate transparent lucency. Both mediums lend themselves well to abstraction, evident in the sparse forms and large expanses of untouched paper that we often see in Cézanne’s late work (we remember that cubism’s unofficial beginning, in the angular, semi-abstract forms of the prostitutes in Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, took place when the painting was made in 1907, the year after Cézanne died). Abstraction, which might be defined as a simplification of figurative forms to the origins they are composed of, became a central tool of the artist late in his career. It was likely an inevitable advance in formal considerations found in Cézanne’s work of the last quarter of the 19th century, which moved into more and more open spaces that functioned like the images they defined. Emptiness, then, worked as well as articulated shapes in Cézanne’s work fairly early in his development; the paper itself became an element contributing to the composition. To a contemporary audience, the late efforts possess a transparent clarity that makes the watercolors feel very much up to date, even now. Still, we must see Cézanne as building a bridge from 19th-century painting into the modernism of the next century, just as the great poet Baudelaire took traditional meter and form and created, with his new (dark) themes, a body of work suitable for the future.

As a figure joining 19th-century traditional painting to the exceptional innovations of 20th-century modernism, Cézanne made it clear that the traditional appreciation of figurative form would have to move forward, into a world where line and color might be applied and understood for their own sake. Abstraction does not necessarily begin where figuration ends; the two ways of seeing incorporate elements of the other perception despite our impulse to view one way of working as thoroughly separate from the other. Cézanne’s range of themes, from close studies of trees to treatments of his young son and wife to the bathers to the great Mt. Sainte Victoire drawings, embraces the variety of elements in his personal life, as well as the broad range of forms found in nature. Throughout, as his line gained in sensitivity and depth, the artist was always a person of strong feeling, but someone who increasingly sublimated emotion by reinvesting it in the subject matter he was addressing. But this happens mostly when he is facing the choices he made in the later work. The very early art, obsessed as it is with violence and rape, feels very much like the mirror of a young man’s erotic obsessions, especially in light of a difficult father. Even so, we should be careful not to psychologize too much; when Cézanne was painting in this fashion, mythic subject matter, dependent on known narrative, such as he drew upon was a standard means for artists to consider.

A brief treatment concerning the body of work we see in this show is needed. Many of the drawings were not made as finished examples of the art. Cézanne would often include four or five very different works on one sheet of paper; his notebooks have been dismantled and individual pages picked up by different institutions and individual collectors. This gives the impression of a wider expression of work than may be the case. Self-portraits often appear as small sketches; the artist’s thinning hair, short beard, and inquisitive gaze reappear on a regular basis. It is highly interesting work, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has included a few paintings that offer a finished version of the brief treatments we find on paper (one of the paintings of the bathers, a young man in white swimming shorts, stands out). It is fair to say that most of the drawings in the show are not finished statements and offer more to someone inquiring into the artist’s process than they do to an audience seeking a permanently accomplished statement. In a show as large as this, the overall impression of Cézanne’s movement toward light and open space becomes just as important as the small individual works that make up the vast majority of what we see. The general path is one of increasing subtlety, in which delicate line and color become useful and effective in their own right, as attributes worthy of study without tying them to a particular realism. The result is that the viewer can actually separate the components of the realism facing him from the elements it is composed of. Thus begins Cézanne’s extraordinary movement into abstraction. By the first decade of the 1900s, he was painting with a truly visionary hand, the likes of which had never been seen before.

There are certain figures that transform the end of an era into the beginning of a new one. Massacio began the Renaissance; Cézanne introduced modernity to the public. But these figures compel us not only to look ahead; they also ask that we look back to the moment in art from which they began their investigations. The kind of style, though, we find in the mature work of Cézanne exampled an entirely new manner of seeing. Less became more, and the suggestion of form, the foundation of abstract art, grew more and more important. As the artist continued, there is a burgeoning translucency and a greater sense of spaciousness even when the composition is filled with discrete, recognizable items. The openness of the later work finds its most exquisite expression in the studies of Mt. Sainte Victoire, in which the paper itself, alone, untouched, is used to extend and sometimes even to define Cézanne’s unconstrained understanding of nature, in which form competes with an uncharted atmosphere to fill his visionary range of space, line, and color. The tacitly conservative quality of his point of view, in which the quiddity of an object is rendered with a high objectivity, as demonstrated by Cézanne’s profound understanding of color and line, suggests that his newness was at least partially based on a classicism that his ardent nature could not fully throw off. So it is likely that the artist’s modernity owes its consequence to a thorough grounding in the past.

For many of us, Cézanne’s studies of Mont Sainte Victoire are the culmination of what began as a rough, expressionist outlook and became a calm, but hardly placid, vision of nature. The rocky height of the mountain, preceded by fields of greenery and flowers, looms above us, in both an actual and a metaphorical manner. In literature, mountains can take on symbolic value, their heights a statement of the possibilities available to those spiritually inclined to ascent, no matter how difficult the circumstances of the climb may be. But in Cézanne’s case, the metaphysical is held at a distance–the field remains a field, and the mountain stays visually available as a mountain. Yet this does not in any way diminish the aspect of what we see, for the artist’s realism is a visionary event, in which color and line, the fundamental attributes of fine art, build a realm of astonishing clarity. Thus, light itself takes on the quality of an object even as it is used to illuminate the forms of the natural world. This makes sense since nature alone holds so much meaning when rendered realistically one can only praise Cézanne’s late understanding of the connectedness of natural forms, in which the flowers in the fields leading up to Mont Sainte Victoire serve as an introduction to the stony peak, whereby the looming height of the mountain takes place as more than a mere backdrop–without its allegoric bent yielding to the vague import of a symbolic view. Cézanne refuses to push his vision in the direction of symbolism, preferring instead to paint things as they are.

Thus the move from the artist’s thick, impassioned treatments of myth give way to something highly refined but still forceful because of his understanding of structure, as well as the inherent passion of his character. In a technical sense, Cézanne’s understanding of structure is so profound as to move it into another place: abstraction. It is true enough that flowers and rocks remain what they are even in the late part of his career, but something else happens, too. After decades of work, the  painter’s perception is so acute and so cultivated, the meaningfulness of the art creates a window for future developments to occur. So the achievement is not only based on a present that is a departure from the past, it is also a motion toward what is to come: cubism could not have existed without the flattened planes and the fragmented forms we see in Cézanne’s cumulative estimate of nature. As he drew late in life, suddenly the vision included not only the exterior of the object or person, which he had learned to describe so well, but also its inner existence. One might, with some justification, offer the question, How does one paint the inner life of something as recalcitrant to interior motive as stone? The only way to justify the effect Cézanne achieves in the Mont St. Victoire studies is to see the work as a projection of inner life into external forms. Rocks do not have a life in the usual sense of the term, but in Cézanne’s hands stone itself becomes a living material. Thus his imagination becomes a transcendent force animating even the most recalcitrant of substances

In the great drawing Mont Sainte Victoire (La Montagne Sainte Victoire vue des Lauves (1902-06), the mountain itself, rendered in light gray–the work is a combination of watercolor and pencil–takes up the top third of the composition. The lower part of the image is a rough field randomly filled with blue and green pieces of shrubbery, accompanied by light brown and yellow, intended to suggest the terrain. The sky is a luminous white, with patches of light blue, and the entire piece is infused with a brilliance of effect that conveys the beauty of the season, which we might expect to be late spring or early summer. There is tremendous excitement on seeing how the drawing is at once remarkably atmospheric and precise. And the mostly flat field before us, in conjunction with the shaped rise of Mont Sainte Victoire, offers viewers the chance to study two kinds of landscape in the same work of art. For this writer, it is the remarkable lucency of the atmosphere, along with the intuitive precision of the forms, that gives Mont Sainte Victoire Its intuitie claim on our imagination. We can also say that a spirit nearly classical in its feeling has replaced the tumult and dark implications of the very early work, which is notable primarily for its force of emotion rather than its subtlety or skill. As the drawings attest, Cézanne’s vision became more rarified and ethereal, without losing the strong emotion we associate with the start of his career. But once he transformed his feeling by restraint, his forms became magically alive.

Another beautiful, late outdoor work, Forest Landscape (1904-06) reprises the brilliant, light color we find in the study of Mont Sainte Victoire. The forest, blue and green, takes over a good three-quarters of the drawing, the light poles of the trees interjecting both structure and lucency in a composition notable for its ethereal feeling. The ground in the forefront is uneven, highlighted by passages in brown, while off the left, in the foreground, a more massive tree trunk leans to the left. Somehow it is a drawing of unusual optimism, a song of praise to the forest as an inspiration to the viewer. Cézanne has permanently left behind his dark mood in favor of an inspired hand, made more so by the introduction of precision. Of course, the colors and forms of this forest picture are not actual, but the overall impression of the scene reminds us that art can sometimes seem factual when its attributes are more imaginative than real. This is, I think, why we enjoy Cézanne’s work so much; it takes the gaze and invests it with so much imagination that its implicit realism becomes thoroughly believable, despite the fragmentary nature of the art. The forest is, in pristine circumstances, inundated with anarchic forms: irregular rocks, the twists and turns of trees, differently hued leaves hanging in irregular fashion. The painter’s extraordinary journey toward an exterior that is as much light as it is form reminds us that sometimes it takes decades for a painter to realize his vision. Only when we begin to recognize that Cézanne’s seeming simplicities of form are in fact extrapolations of unusual complexity, will our understanding of this great artist move toward real insight.

The same thing happens in the other genres Cézanne takes on. In Study of a Skull (1904-06), the skull, lacking a lower jawbone, has lost all symbolic meaning, except the most obvious meaning of death, the fate awaiting both the artist and his audience. Here, though, it is mostly an item for study, as it rests on what looks like a shelf covered with a tan and black cloth. The elements of measure and restraint, so profoundly important to an artist whose classical impulse grew stronger over time, transform a literal representation of mortality into an image of some lightness if not actual levity. The whole point of Cézanne’s career was its movement away from symbolic motion to a lighter universe held together by the artist’s advance in color and line. In this sense, the study of the skull is a particularly good example of the artist’s transformation of thematic intensity into the joyous structures of form. In doing so, he prepared the way for cubism, the most profound innovation in Western art history. Perhaps Cézanne was able to accomplish this change so effectively because he moved away from cultural history toward the careful, highly original interpretation of things as they are.

Still Life with Blue Pot (1900-06) presents the viewer with a dark blue pot and two light-colored carafes, which stand on a table cover notable for its complex, colorful abstract pattern of blue, brown, and a deep red. Apples surround the kitchen artifacts, so that the composition is a mixture of the natural, the practical, and (in the case of the table throw) the material of culture. The tablecloth enables Cézanne to brilliantly emphasize the multiple hues we see, while the apples and appliances are more oriented toward formal concerns–with the exception of the vividly blue pot.  Cézanne’s nature was such that he was able to invest, even in a direct report on an arranged still life, his composition with considerable emotion. He never lost his feelings even as he grew more austere in his exploration of them. In Still Life with Cut Watermelon  (c. 1900), the emphasis is on a lightness of tone, with the exception of the deep red flesh of the watermelon. A spoon and knife exist to the watermelon’s right, in the foreground. Other kitchen objects are arranged around the melon. The artist’s emphasis on the individual structure of the forms, as well as their placement in the totality of the picture, seem rational and deliberate. Yet the overall experience is one of feeling, even in regard to so prosaic a point of view as a cut melon! Again and again, the ordinary becomes poetry in the hands of someone who approached his subject matter both rationally and with deep empathy.

The Bathers, the large, major painting by Cézanne finished in 1905 (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), is the culmination of the interest he took of bathers in a sylvan setting. In one drawing of the theme, done between 1885 and 1890, a group of unclothed men mostly stand, their bodies not emphasized for formal reasons so much as for the recognition of the tacit energy of the male nude. At the same time Cézanne invests the figures with a tacit virility, who stand in a disarray of placement next to each other. There is no full frontal nudity; the backs are emphasized. The drawing is an accomplished, understated study of form. Bathers (c. 1890), is composed of three slightly bent, mostly nude figures. The central figure faces us in blue and green surroundings. His legs are bent, while his hands, set on the ground, support his upright torso. These drawings are not meant to impress us technically; rather, they are expressions of human activity, aligned with the trappings of nature. The bathers we see are part of nature; there is no suggestion of salaciousness, only the neutral presence of the human body. One of the things that Cézanne quietly eschews in the mid-work and later is the sense of erotic aggression, and even human disaster, we find in the work he did when he was just starting out. Unlike Picasso, the revolutionary artist who immediately followed Cézanne in art historical time, the latter painter brought to fruition an interest in realism whose implications may well have been abstract, but which were not the conscious decision of a great painter. As we can say of changes that take place randomly, but also with real force, it just happened that way

An earlier work from 1878-80, titled The Apotheosis of Delacroix, shows the great French romantic artist lifting from earth heavenward on a cloud. He is accompanied by several attractive female ascendants, seraphim of a rather erotic kind, while beneath the ascendant painter is a forest clearing where, on the left, people raise their closed hands in an attitude of prayer or devotion. One can see the connections between the two artists; Delacroix was an artist of immense energy and feeling, and it makes sense to understand Cézanne as following the earlier painter’s path. What is interesting about Cézanne, though, is that he seems to have moved away from romanticism toward what might be called a incisive classicism, in which restraint and wide expanses of untouched paper enabled Cézanne to suggest as much as to describe in exactitude. His capacity for suggestion in the late work is unparalleled. Somehow the essence of an apple became more important to him than the grand, mythic themes preoccupying him when he was young. Doing so enabled Cézanne to move closer to visual realism and distance himself from literary narrative. In result, his work starts to be about essences as defined by the suggestion of light–at least in the drawings. The work thus becomes a bare-bones vision of atmosphere as well as a stunning treatment of the actuality of what he saw. Put together, the two tendencies resulted in drawings of particular accomplishment.

Yet none of this could have been done without a strong sense of cultural history. Around 1890, he did an exquisite study named Mercury after Pigalle (Pigale was a 18th-century French artist whose marble version  of Mercury is much admired). Cézanne’s drawing of the naked god, with cloth covering part of his legs, is a homage to a powerful work of art, his face a matter of focused determination, which might be a very good way of describing Cézanne’s apprenticeship and long career. This is a copy of an earlier work based on Greek mythology, so its attractiveness is at least in part based upon the art historical background of the theme. Eleven though Cézannne made his way into uncharted territory, it is clear that his advance, in color and line, owed more than a lot to his awareness of work of the past. It would be entirely wrong to comment that he developed his skills without a background. Indeed, it looks like the beauty he attains in the late drawings result from decades of close observation and the slow but sure internalization of technical skill. As a result, he bridged the gap between the academicism he studied and his clear, clean descriptions of apples, rocks and trees, and Mont Sainte Victoire.

Céxanne was not a poet of domestic intimacies, in the way we find the work of the later Vuillard, but rather someone who retained his affection for nature and light. His drawings of his wife and son are interesting more for technical reasons than for the emotion with which he portrayed them. This does not mean that his temperament was cold or merely analytical–only that he wished to capture his ardent realism in a new way. Sometimes–and this happens only very rarely–a single artist breaks through to a new description of what he sees, ahead of everyone else. In the artist’s case, we don’t have great achievement establishing itself without precedent of both a technical and thematic sort. Instead, we have the slow insistence of someone who wanted to discover the interior energies of objects and nature, as made luminous by light of an unknown source. In the studies of Mont Sainte Victoire, stone becomes as radiant as flowers, leaving us in near awe at the painter’s ability to merge his eye and hand with something so recalcitrant to an internal reading as the stony rise of a mountain! I have concentrated on Cézanne’s late work because that is where his long apprenticeship to nature and art becomes evocative to a marvelous degree. One hesitates to use superlatives in art, but the drawings demand more than high praise. Only rarely do we come across an artist like Cézanne–someone who found a way out of the turbidities of his art’s beginnings into an open field or lucent forest, both transformed by light. While writers may summarize his achievement as primarily technical, it is also fair to say that Cézanne was a poet rendering the ordinary into statements of clarity, vision, and restraint. Perhaps we go too far if we say the transformation of his efforts even took on a new kind of ethics given the artist’s innovative way of seeing. We almost never associate an advance in visual style to a new moral vision, so the statement may seem extreme. But perhaps reading the greatness of his achievement is possible in this way.

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