Paul Cézanne's Poires et couteau is a gem-like still life composition showing a knife, pears and a preserve jar. These objects appear to have been submitted to the intense scrutiny and transformation so distinctive of Cézanne's works: the pears have been depicted with a mesh of darting brushstrokes of varying tones which convey the fall of light upon their bulbous forms, lending them a vivid sense of weight and volume. This is accentuated by their contrast with the darker background, largely painted in brown, against which they glow softly. Meanwhile, the green of the fruit is thrown into bolder relief by its contrast with the red of the jar behind them. Looking at the poise of the objects in Poires et couteau, one can see why Cézanne would come to be revered by a host of twentieth-century artists including Pablo Picasso and Giorgio Morandi. Indeed, the stillness of this image prefigures the meditative tranquillity of Morandi's own paintings. It is a tribute to the importance of Poires et couteau that it has featured in a number of highly prominent collections. It was sold by Cézanne's dealer, Ambroise Vollard - the first to give him a one man show - to Cornelis Hoogendijk. It subsequently formed a part of the historic bequest of Lillie P. Bliss; later, it was one of the works in the celebrated collection of Mr and Mrs Charles S. Payson. While Payson was a successful businessman in his own right, his wife, Joan Whitney, was an heiress as well as a prominent philanthropist - and one of the founders of the baseball team, the New York Mets.
John Rewald ascribed a date of 1877 or 1878 to Poires et couteau in his catalogue raisonné of Cézanne's works (J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, London, 1996, p. 232). This was an important period in Cézanne's career. In 1877, Cézanne had participated in the Third Impressionist Exhibition, showing a number of works; these did not receive the favourable reception that was extended to the pictures of some of his contemporaries, and subsequently he retired increasingly from the public gaze, working in relative solitude. It was in part for this reason that Cézanne's works were little-known during much of his own lifetime and attained the cult status that they enjoyed among a small group of admirers, be they collectors or fellow artists.
It was in his still life compositions that Cézanne found the steadiest arena for his investigations of art and representation, as is clear in this picture. In some of the still life works of a similar scale to Poires et couteau, Cézanne was working towards larger compositions, essentially using them as studies towards those other paintings. However, Poires et couteau appears not to relate directly to any larger still life compositions, instead revealing the artist probing this arrangement of objects and its formal ramifications. In Poires et couteau, there is an intriguing interplay of shapes and forms: the pears are arranged as though in a row; in front of these luscious fruit, with their near-spherical bulges, is the thin, elongated handle of the knife, while behind them is the jar. Upon the jar, creating an intriguing visual assonance, is a circular label that adds a continuity to the visual rhythm established by the two pears.
For Cézanne, the advantage of the still life was that very stillness: he was able to create compositions that would not move, allowing for a static focus for his studies. Indeed, the fact that pears, for instance, could be purchased at any time meant that the still life provided the ultimate gauge against which to measure his advances. The still life was the territory for Cézanne's greatest experiments. Looking at Poires et couteau, it is clear that this work is related, though not directly, to many of Cézanne's other still life works from the period, be it the larger compositions or others of a similar size. In these, he was able to carry out his investigations even more freely, meaning that Poires et couteau can be seen to provide an insight into the working process of the Master of Aix. In addition, it was in works that echoed these that Picasso would later work towards Cubism, creating a number of post-Cézanne still life compositions. These intimate explorations such as Poires et couteau were therefore to become the foundations for some of the greatest strides taken in the history of art during the Twentieth Century.
It is a tribute to the importance of this painting that it has been in a string of distinguished collections. It appears to have initially been acquired from Vollard by Cornelis Hoogendijk, an eccentric collector who acquired over thirty pictures by Cézanne within the space of just three years of buying activity in Paris, at the end of the Nineteenth Century. In his own memoirs, Vollard told the story, doubtless sensationalised (especially when compared to the actual transactional history recorded in his stock books) of Hoogendijk entering his shop and buying swathes of works by one artist after another, according to his belief of which was the greatest, eventually settling for a lottery (see A. Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer, trans. V.M. MacDonald, New York, 2002, pp. 126-29). As well as buying Cézanne's works, Hoogendijk apparently owned over a dozen works by Vincent van Gogh, revealing him to be a perspicacious supporter of the avant garde. The posthumous sale of his collection in Amsterdam was an international event: dealers, collectors and their agents came from afar to obtain his works.
This picture was owned by Marius de Zayas, like Cézanne, another revolutionary of the art world. The son of a prominent Mexican man of letters, de Zayas was a portraitist and caricaturist who became a director of the Modern Gallery, which opened in New York in 1915. A showcase for avant-garde art, the Modern Gallery caused huge scandals with its controversial exhibitions, resulting in de Zayas' frequent correspondence with characters as important and diverse as Picasso, Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Max Jacob, Diego Rivera, and his close friend Alfred Stieglitz.
Poires et couteau was later owned by Lillie P. Bliss and was part of the hugely important bequest that she left to the still fledgling Museum of Modern Art, New York; it was toured extensively as a part of this group of over a hundred pictures. This was essentially the founding of the permanent collection of the MoMA, which until that point had largely been an exhibition space. Bliss, a prominent heiress, socialite and philanthropist who had been involved in founding the Armory show in New York, which had become a beacon for the avant garde in the United States, specified that the works in her collection, apart from one by Honoré Daumier and two by Paul Cézanne - both still life compositions - were able to be sold in order to raise funds for future purchases; this happened with Poires et couteau when it was one of a number of works offered at auction to raise funds for the museum in 1944.
Poires et couteau passed through the distinguished collection of Jacques Helft, a dealer in works of art, especially those made with precious metals. It was then owned by Joan Whitney Payson and her husband. An heiress from the famous Whitney family, Joan was also a keen fan of baseball. When the New York Giants, of whom she was a shareholder, moved to California, she was one of the few board members to object; she was then instrumental in setting up a new team for New York, the Mets. As well as her interest in baseball, she and her husband were keen philanthropists, as well as prominent collectors, and bequeathed many works to the Portland Museum of Art and Colby College in Maine.