Grand bouquet de fleurs, an example of three dozen or so flower still-lifes Cézanne painted during his career, is unusually ambitious in scale. Only a very few of his other flower pictures, such as Bouquet de fleurs (R. 893) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, match the present work's dimensions.
Still-life was of crucial importance to Cézanne. As a solitary and methodical worker, it enabled him to arrange his objects in precisely the positions he required, without concern as to the number of 'sittings' involved: once the fruit or flowers were arranged to his satisfaction, he was at liberty to record his 'sensations' thoroughly. Dated by Rewald (op. cit.) to the period between 1892 and 1895, Grand bouquet de fleurs exemplifies Cézanne's dedication to the still-life genre and his interest, and spirit, in artistic experimentation. 'He needed time in order to move forward,' wrote Emile Bernard, one of Cézanne's earliest disciples, in 1907, 'and he found it in the presence of skulls, green fruit or paper flowers. It was in this genre that he best showed what he was capable of' (Souvenir sur Paul Cézanne, 1907, p. 79).
It is in this light that the viewer must see the brushwork in Grand bouquet de fleurs. Although the paint itself is almost translucent in many parts, and absent in others, the scheme by which he has built up a varied herringbone effect of blocks of colour is reminiscent of the manner of execution of his bathers and landscapes. The highly-keyed tones also pressage the 'breathing' forms of Cézanne's later watercolours.
Part of his technique, or philosophy, was to set aside all precedents. Although he revered certain Old Masters and although linked for some time with Impressionism, Cézanne's respect for tradition and his love of painting en plein air was filtered through his own temperament. For he was not interested in light, in the true depiction of the dappled light of clouds. Instead, he was interested in the very real presentation of the object. He was interested in our subjectivity as viewers both of paintings and of the real world. Thus, in Grand bouquet de fleurs, he has shut himself in a room so that he can analyse the flowers, the composition, and his own act of seeing.
The composition of Grand bouquet de fleurs Cézanne's fascination with the act of seeing, dragging the viewer's eye to the centre of the canvas, to the centre of the subject. By doing so, he has almost abstracted the act of viewing. While he himself uses the oils to explore this act, to ask himself how possibly he can be true to the act of seeing, he finds himself also commenting on the act of painting. Grand bouquet de fleurs is an intense enough vision that the viewer cannot but accept that a mere representation of the flowers would not have sufficed. There is a dimension that would be lacking, and this is not a dimension of the sight itself, but rather the human dimension, the simple fact that, regardless of the existence of the flowers, they exist really only in Cézanne's head at the time that he is painting them.
It is this unbridgeable gap between the viewer of the painting and the artist's own vision that Cézanne was trying to assault. To do so, he had to inspect his reality with a new methodology. Rather than see the flowers merely as a phenomenon, he has tried to capture something of their essence, and especially of their physicality. It is here that the feathered yet brick-like brushstrokes come into play. Cézanne has deliberately built up a surface, not only in terms of the oil on the canvas, but also in terms of the appearance of the flowers, of the pot, of the table. While the almost hatched blocks of oil help achieve this, so does the apparent deepening of the density of the paint in certain areas. It is in fact almost surprising, on closer inspection of Grand bouquet de fleurs, to see how thin the paint is even in the darker areas of the work. Cézanne has used his palette to create the dark areas, rather than any build-up of paint on the canvas. This helps lend the whole painting not a lightness, but an inner glow, the canvas not showing through the paint necessarily, but nonetheless permitting it a certain delicateness suited to the subject matter.
This contrast between lightness and texture is taken to the extreme in Grand bouquet de fleurs. The exhibition in 2000 in Zurich entitled Cézanne - Finished Unfinished brought attention to a too-often neglected field of study of his works. In Grand bouquet de fleurs, it is plain to see that the unpainted areas have, rather than being unfinished, been kept in reserve. Cézanne has even managed to articulate some of the heads of the flowers through the judicious avoidance of paint. This technique is reminiscent of Oriental painting, where the use of blank space is used almost as another colour in the palette. However, Cézanne, a constant pioneer in his own art and seldom opening himself up to such overt influences, appears rather to have been influenced by his own works on paper. His watercolours especially made bold and extremely successful use of empty areas, effortlessly denoting his subject matter, be it landscape, skull, flower or portrait. Here, the lightness of the unpainted areas add a contrasting solidity to the flowers, accentuating the contrast with the thinly painted areas while also pushing the vase into relief. This sense that the work is in fact finished is accentuated by its scale.
Grand bouquet de fleurs initially passed through the hands of Ambroise Vollard. It was during precisely the period that Grand bouquet de fleurs was painted that Vollard, through the agency of Pissarro, discovered the works of Cézanne, and discovered that he was essentially the only painter associated with Impressionism who was not represented - and whose works were affordable. It was on the back of this discovery that Vollard made much of his fortune and reputation. His first major exhibition was Cézanne's first one man show in 1895, and this marked the beginning of true recognition and financial security for the artist, now in his fifties. Ironically, one of the other periods during which Cézanne had turned to flower paintings had been during the late 1870s, again under the influence of Pissarro, following his extreme disappointment at the savage reviews his work received at the third Impressionist exhibition. Cézanne had entered what was to be an extended form of loose exile, shutting himself off from the public and the art market, becoming a form of cult figure, a pioneer hidden in obscurity. It is therefore perhaps with a sense of triumph, of certainty that his art was now being seen properly and respected, that he returned to the theme of flower paintings.
After Vollard, Grand bouquet de fleurs was owned by the industrialist Auguste Pellerin, a collector of Impressionist and Modern art who bought on a legendary scale. Indeed, he owned many of Manet's masterpieces, and even more of Cézanne's. Pellerin was a collector of intense foresight, and is thought possibly to have purchased a Cézanne as early as the above-mentioned 1895 exhibition. Works of art that formed Auguste Pellerin's collection now not only compliment, but indeed form the very backbone of the collections of many museums worldwide, and indeed the backbone of the public understanding of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.