In this intimate and jewel-like canvas, painted around 1875, Cézanne focused his full attention on two voluptuous golden pears, propped side-by-side against a neutral olive ground and rendered close-up in rugged, vigorous strokes of paint. The canvas dates to a difficult period in the artist’s personal life, as he shuttled between his family’s estate at Aix and the apartment in Paris where he had installed his mistress Hortense and their young son Paul, whose existence he hid from his authoritarian father. Although many of his contemporaneous figure compositions bear the imprint of these ordeals, the deliberate and meditative work of still-life painting seems to have offered the artist a respite from his demons, as he strove to transform Impressionism into “something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” In Deux poires, Cézanne built up the painted surface from interlocking patches of color spanning a warm tonal gradient, early evidence for the systematic, structured approach to facture–the transformative “constructive stroke”–that he would perfect by the end of the decade.
“In addition to the more ‘symphonic’ works, in which the painter...depicted complex domestic geographies of his own devising, he produced a few canvases representing only isolated fruit,” Henri Loyrette has written. “These can be viewed as studies in which the artist examined his subject from every angle, thoroughly perusing their globular forms, seemingly simple, in reality quite complex: in short, as visual exercises in which he practiced his tonal scales, carefully gauging the effect produced by juxtapositions of greens, yellows, and reds. Alternatively, they can be regarded as self-sufficient little pictures that, like Manet’s Asparagus, deliberately reject the contrivances visible in the larger works to showcase motifs so simple as to border on abstraction” (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 174).
Deux poires was featured in Cézanne’s inaugural one-man show, held at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in 1895; it is one of only fourteen still-lifes that have been conclusively identified from this watershed exhibition, which catapulted Cézanne out of relative obscurity. For the better part of two decades, since the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877, almost the only public showcase for Cézanne’s work had been the tiny shop of Père Tanguy; most of his paintings were in the possession of family members, childhood friends, and fellow artists, as well as a few collectors whom he knew personally. In 1894, in the first lengthy article on Cézanne ever published, Gustave Geffroy could still describe him, memorably, as “somebody at once unknown and famous” (quoted in R. Rabinow, ed., op. cit., 2006, p. 35).
The 1895 Vollard exhibition, and two more that followed in 1898 and 1899, utterly re-defined Cézanne’s achievement and secured his legacy as a modern master. “Cézanne’s successive shows at Vollard’s and larger salons, the formidable cache of paintings kept by Vollard, and even the artist’s mythical status as a renegade and solitary southerner in the Parisian art world, helped to shape his critical status in the annals of early modernist art,” Mary Tompkins Lewis has written (Cézanne, London, 2000, p. 325).
At the Vollard show, Deux poires caught the eye of Nicolas-Auguste Hazard, a connoisseur of Daumier’s work, who had never before owned a Cézanne; he purchased the canvas in February 1896 and retained it until his death. Deux poires later belonged to Baron Kojiro Matsukata, a Japanese businessman who lived in Paris during the 1920s and devoted his personal fortune to amassing a major collection of French painting and sculpture, a portion of which today forms the nucleus of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.