Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

La conversation

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
La conversation
oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. (92 x 73 cm.)
Painted in 1870-1871
The artist's estate, Jas de Bouffan, Aix-en-Provence.
Louis Granel, Aix-en-Provence, by whom acquired from the above.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, by 18 September 1912.
Robert Treat Paine, Boston.
Stephan Bourgeois Gallery, New York.
Walther Halvorsen, Oslo.
Nielsen collection, Oslo, and Galerie Thannhauser, Lucerne, by 6 March 1926.
Bernheim-Jeune collection, Paris, by whom acquired from the above, in 1927.
Private collection, Paris, by whom acquired from the above, and thence by descent.
M. Denis, 'Cézanne', in Kunst und Künstler, vol. 12, no. 4, Berlin, January 1914, p. 282 (illustrated; titled 'Scene im freien').
R. Cortissoz, 'Paul Cézanne and the Cult for His Paintings', in New York Tribune, 9 January 1916, p. 3 (illustrated; titled 'The Two Sisters').
'Breve fra Paul Cézanne', in Klingen, vol. 3, no. 9, Copenhagen, 1919-1920, p. 9 (illustrated).
J. Meier-Graefe, Cézanne und sein Kreis, Ein Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte, Munich, 1920, p. 79 (illustrated p. 91; titled 'Szene im Freien').
J. Gasquet, Cézanne, Paris, 1921, n.p. (illustrated).
G. Janneau, 'Impressions d'Amérique: M. Bénédite nous conte son voyage', in Bulletin de la Vie Artistique, no. 8, 15 April 1921, p. 239 (illustrated).
H. von Wedderkop, Paul Cézanne, Leipzig, 1922, p. 17 (illustrated; titled 'Die zwei Schwestern').
T. L. Klingsor, Cézanne, Paris, 1923, pl. 3 (illustrated; titled 'Portraits de Mlle Cézanne, Mme Conil, MM. Abram et Valabrégue').
G. Rivière, Le Maître Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1923, p. 26 (illustrated p. 33; dated '1875' and with incorrect provenance).
I. Arishima, Sezannu, Tokyo, 1925, pl. 17.
R. Cortissoz, Personalities in Art, New York, 1925, p. 299 (titled 'The Two Sisters').
L. Vauxcelles, 'A propos de Cézanne', in Art Vivant, 26 July 1926, p. 484 (illustrated).
M. Osborn, 'Klassiker der französischen Moderne. Die Galerie Thannhauser in Berlin', in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, October 1926 - March 1927, p. 334 (illustrated).
Frankfürter Illustrierte, 5 March 1927, p. 219.
G. Charensol, 'Cézanne à la galerie Pigalle', in Art Vivant, vol. 6, no. 124, 15 February 1930, p. 181 (illustrated).
E. D'Ors, Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1930, no. 31, n.p. (illustrated pl. 31; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
G. Rivière, Cézanne: Le peintre solitaire, Paris, 1933, p. 177 (illustrated p. 51; dated '1875' and with incorrect provenance).
G. Mack, Paul Cézanne, New York, 1935, p. 50 (illustrated fig. 6, p. 51; dated '1868 or 1870').
G. di San Lazzaro, Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1936, fig. 44 (illustrated).
M. Raynal, Cézanne, Paris, 1936, p. 145 (illustrated pl. X, p. 37; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
L. Venturi, Cézanne: Son art, son oeuvre, vol. I, Paris, 1936, no. 120, p. 93 (illustrated vol. II, no. 120).
J. Rewald, 'Sources d'inspiration de Cézanne', in Amour de l'Art, no. 5, May 1936, p. 192 (illustrated fig. 98).
P. Francastel, L'impressionnisme: Les origines de la peinture moderne de Monet à Gauguin, Paris, 1937, p. 81 (illustrated fig. 14; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
R. Cogniat, ed., Cézanne, Paris, 1939, pl. IV (illustrated).
R. H. Wilenski, Modern French Painters, New York, 1940, p. 30 (illustrated pl. 7).
G. Rivière, Cézanne: Le peintre solitaire, Paris, 1942, p. 51 (illustrated).
B. Dorival, Cézanne, Paris, 1948, pl. IV (illustrated; titled 'Femmes au jardin').
R. W. Murphy, The World of Cézanne: 1839-1906, New York, 1968, p. 41 (illustrated).
F. Elgar, Cézanne, London, 1969, p. 27 (illustrated).
S. Orienti, The complete paintings of Cézanne, New York, 1972, no. 41, p. 88 (illustrated; titled 'Two Ladies and Two Gentlemen Outdoors (Conversation Piece)').
M. Roskill, 'Early Impressionism and the Fashion Print', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 112, no. 807, June 1970, p. 392.
A. Barskaya, Paul Cézanne, Leningrad, 1975, p. 162 (illustrated).
L. Venturi, Cézanne, Geneva, 1978, pp. 58 & 170 (illustrated p. 58).
J.-J. Lévêque, La vie et l'oeuvre de Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1988, p. 54 (illustrated).
J. Rewald, Cézanne and America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists and Critics, 1891-1921, New Jersey, 1989, no. 151, p. 349 (illustrated p. 300).
J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, New York, 1996, no. 152, pp. 137-138 (illustrated vol. II, n.p.).
A. Dombrowski, 'The Emperor's Last Clothes: Cézanne, Fashion and "L'année terrible"', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 148, no. 1242, September 2006, pp. 586 & 589-590 (illustrated p. 589).
Exh. cat, Modernism: Reinventing Painting, 1908-41, Aarhus, 2012, pp. 180 & 182 (illustrated fig. 121, p. 180).
A. Danchev, Cézanne: A Life, New York, 2012, p. 189.
A. Dombrowski, Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life, Berkeley, 2013, p. 184 (illustrated pl. 14a).
F. Kitschen, 'Auf der dunklen Seite der Moderne', in Kunstchronik, vol. 68, no. 2, February 2015, p. 86.
W. Feilchenfeldt, J. Warman & D. Nash, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, an online catalogue raisonné, no. 607 (accessed 2018).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paul Cézanne, January 1914, no. 9 (titled 'Les soeurs de Cézanne').
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Exhibition of Paintings by Contemporary French Artists, January 1916, no. 12, n.p. (titled 'The Two Sisters').
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Rétrospective Paul Cézanne, June 1926, no. 51 (titled 'Les deux soeurs').
Berlin, Galerie Thannhauser, Erste Sonderausstellung in Berlin, January - February 1927, no. 12, p. 10 (illustrated p. 11; titled 'Die zwei Schwestern').
Paris, Galerie Pigalle, Cézanne, 1839-1906, December 1929, no. 1, p. 17 (illustrated n.p.; titled 'Les deux soeurs').
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Cent ans de portraits français, 1800-1900, October - November 1934, no. 18, n.p. (illustrated n.p.; dated '1875').
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Quelques tableaux d'Ingres à Gauguin, June - July 1935, no. 4, n.p. (illustrated n.p.; titled 'Les deux Soeurs').
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, La Femme, 1800-1930, April - June 1948, no. 15, p. 21 (illustrated p. 20).
Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, Monticelli et le baroque Provençal, June - September 1953, no. 12, pp. 6-7 (with incorrect provenance).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Cézanne: aquarelliste et peintre, May - July 1960, no. 27, n.p.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Cent ans de portrait, 1860-1960, May - July 1962, no. 12, n.p. (titled 'Les deux soeurs').
Schaffhausen, Museums zu Allerheiligen, Die Welt des Impressionismus, June - September 1963, no. 4, p. 17 (illustrated n.p.; titled 'Die zwei Schwestern').
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, L'art et la mode, 1965, no. 6.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Aquarelles de Cézanne, January - March 1971, no. 24, n.p..
Paris, Musée d'Orsay, L'Impressionnisme et la Mode, September 2012- January 2013, no. 59, pp. 122 & 298 (illustrated p. 122); this exhibition later travelled to New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity, February - May 2013, no. 27, p. 71 (illustrated); and Chicago, Art Institute, June - September 2013.
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Paul Cézanne: Le chant de la terre, June - November 2017, no. 79, pp. 266 & 340 (illustrated p. 267).

Brought to you by

Keith Gill
Keith Gill

Lot Essay

'I have before me a series of fashion plates... These costumes, which seem laughable to many thoughtless people... have a double-natured charm, one both artistic and historical. They are often very beautiful and drawn with wit; but what to me is every bit as important... is the moral and aesthetic feeling of their time… These engravings can be translated either into beauty or ugliness; in one direction, they become caricatures, in the other, antique states… If an impartial student were to look through a whole range of French costume from the origin of our country until the present day, he would find nothing to shock nor even to surprise him. The transitions would be as elaborately articulated as they are in the animal kingdom. There would not be a single gap: and thus, not a single surprise. And if to the fashion plate representing each age he were to add the philosophic thought with which that age was most preoccupied or concerned... he would see what a profound harmony controls all the components of history, and that even in those centuries which seem to us the most monstrous and the maddest, the immortal thirst for beauty has always found its satisfaction.’ (Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le peintre de la vie moderne’, 1863, in C. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London, 1964, pp. 2-3).

Paul Cézanne’s painting La conversation ('The Conversation') is a rare, unique and highly important work painted during the height of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. An intriguing, indeed, perhaps ultimately mysterious work, it belongs to the culminatory period of Cézanne’s often turbulent and dark early career. Atypically, for Cézanne during this period, when his work was often filled with images of sex and violence, the painting appears to depict a genteel scene in the manner of a popular observer of mid-19th Century fashion and manners such as Constantin Guys. A closer inspection of this apparently innocent depiction of two fashionably-attired women in a garden, however, reveals something different. Darker undertones indicative of the tempestuous passions and human drives towards sex, war and violence are also present here. These elements, often indicative of an eternal battle between the sexes and a turbulent inner psychology hiding beneath the exterior forms of daily life are ones that underpin and define so many of Cézanne’s early paintings with their repeated representations of rape, abduction, murder and violence as well as of seduction, temptation and repressed sexual tension. In this work, though, executed in the midst of war, they are also timely and poignant.

The first unusual feature to note about La conversation is that, in direct and deliberate contrast to the cultural spirit of this age of Impressionism, plein air painting and ‘truth to nature’, Cézanne has not painted this stereotypical scene from life or from an observance of life, but appropriated and amended it from a popular, mass-media source. La conversation is one of three known paintings by Cézanne from this period that derive directly from illustrated fashion plates (the other two paintings are La promenade of 1871 and Intérieur, circa 1871, now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow). Fashion plates were popular printed illustrations, common to fashion magazines of the time, such as La Mode Illustrée, that illustrated the latest styles in Parisian fashion through the medium of genteel pictorial scenes of fashionable women ‘taking the air’ in cultivated gardens. La Mode Illustrée for instance, was a periodical subscribed to by Cézanne’s two sisters and also provided the source imagery for these three ‘fashion plate’ paintings.

At the beginning of his famous 1863 essay, Le peintre de la vie moderne, Charles Baudelaire took the unusual step of invoking the common kitsch of fashion plates as being also powerful indicators of ‘the moral and aesthetic feeling of their time’ and symbols of the ultimate triumph of mankind’s ‘immortal thirst for beauty’ over even the ‘most monstrous and the maddest’ periods in history (Charles Baudelaire, 'Le peintre de la vie moderne', 1863, op. cit, pp. 2-3). Given this context, it is intriguing that Cézanne appears to have decided to paint a series of pictures derived from such scenes as Baudelaire describes at precisely the moment when his country had become engulfed in a disastrous war with Prussia and he himself was in hiding from being drafted into the French army.

In the late 1860s many early Impressionist artists had found in the depiction of the latest womens' fashion a way of reinforcing the widely understood belief at this time that modernity and the modern experience was, like fashion, something that was essentially fleeting and receptive to change. What dominated Cézanne’s distinctly un-Impressionistic, non-fleeting or momentary art of this period was the depiction of the more permanent, basic, elemental, and perhaps eternal, hidden, inner drives and passions of human beings. It was these primal urges that he had sought to evoke, exploding from the forms of his figures, time and again in such paintings as L'enlèvement, 1867 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), Le meurtre, 1867-1868 (The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), La femme étranglée, 1870-1872 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), La tentation de Saint-Antoine, 1870 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Pastorale, 1870 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and his caustic takes on Manet’s most famous painting Lé Dejeuner sur l’herbe of 1870-1871 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and his two paintings entitled Une moderne Olympia of 1869-1870 (Private collection) and 1873-1874 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

In fashion plate paintings like La conversation, Cézanne’s early preoccupation with these often violent and sexual drives appears to have become combined with another chief concern of Cézanne’s at this time: the social codes that control and contain such impulses. For in this painting Cézanne has made a series of highly significant amendments to the fanciful imagery of the original fashion plate used in La Mode Illustrée. And all of these appear to be aimed at rooting this idealised image in a more earthy, mundane and contemporary context. At the right of the painting Cézanne has added the figures of two soberly dressed men gazing away from the women towards the middle of the painting. These figures introduce not just the idea of flirtation and of an elemental male/ female divide, but also a context of separation that is rendered all the more significant by Cézanne’s addition of a phallic-looking tower in the middle of the painting onto which the French tricolour - symbol of the then threatened Republic and highly militarised situation in France – is emblazoned. Both these features lend this wartime work a darker and, distinctly contemporary, politicised edge.

The inclusion of phallic symbols in Cézanne’s painting was, in fact, not at all an unusual feature of the artist’s early work: as a painting such as Pastorale of 1870, now in the Musée d’Orsay, attests. This seemingly innocent, but distinctly allegorical painting of the same period is, as many observers have noted, liberally littered with phallic symbols indicative of societal repression of the sexual urge. Similarly, in La conversation, as André Dombrowski has pointed out, the ‘details that Cézanne chose to dramatise [here] add a sexual charge to the print: strips of fabric on the standing woman’s skirt look like phalluses: a black lace scarf over a white dress presents itself as pubic hair. Removed from the exclusively female realm of fashion, the transformed print evokes urban images of not so genteel flirtation’ (A. Dombrowski, ‘The emperor’s last clothes: Cézanne fashion and “l’année terrible”’, in The Burlington Magazine, London, September 2006, p. 590).

In this respect, the observations of Cézanne’s close friend, the novelist Emile Zola are also perhaps relevant. In 1868, Zola had written that the contemporary painters who wished to revel in their times did not create works that ‘resemble banal and unintelligent fashion plates or newsprints like those published by the illustrated press. Their works are, instead, alive, because they have taken them from life, and because they have painted them with all the passion they feel for modern subjects’ (Emile Zola, ‘Mon Salon’, 1868, in J.-P. Leduc-Adine, ed., Emile Zola: Ecrits sur l’art, Paris, 1991, p. 207).

Cézanne’s approach in La conversation therefore appears to be a fusion of both Baudelaire and Zola’s seemingly contradictory advice to the ‘modern’ painter with regards to the fashion plate. For in this remarkably modern, arguably even postmodernist, idea of basing a painting on an appropriated illustration taken from the popular media, Cézanne has adhered to Baudelaire’s concept of the fashion plate as a conveyer of ‘moral and aesthetic feeling’ but also infused this idealised, near fantasy view of modern life with Zola’s assertion that the modern artist must represent ‘the passion they feel’ for their subjects. The result, as La conversation attests, is a highly charged, if also puzzling, image that, like so many of Cézanne’s emotion-packed early paintings, appears to speak of the eternal drama of human life.

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