Hidden Treasures: Nature morte de pêches et poires by Paul Cézanne

During his lifetime Cézanne would come to be hailed as the ‘father of modern art’. This work — offered on 27 February — hails from a critical moment in the artist’s career when he was striving to bring a new objectivity to painting

Allen Ginsberg coined a phrase to describe the experience of looking at a painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): ‘eyeball kicks’. What the beat poet was referring to was the visionary spasm created by looking from one complementary colour to another.

It happens most notably in the artist’s still lifes, where greens and reds pulsate with a rhythmic force. The effect is deliberate — Cézanne spent hours selecting and arranging fruit. ‘He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions,’ observed the artist Louis Le Bail. ‘One guessed that it was a feast for the eye to him.’

Paul Cézanne, Nature morte de pêches et poires, 1885-1887. Oil on canvas. 15 x 18⅛ in (38 x 46.3 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Hidden Treasures on 27 February at Christie’s London
Paul Cézanne, Nature morte de pêches et poires, 1885-1887. Oil on canvas. 15 x 18⅛ in (38 x 46.3 cm). Estimate on request. Offered in Hidden Treasures on 27 February at Christie’s London

Nature morte de pêches et poires  is one of many still lifes that Cézanne produced over his career. His desire was to create paintings that were active and full of life, rather than inert and passive. To this end he would use coins to wedge the fruit in place, so that they tipped forward. As the poet W.S. Di Piero explains, ‘The objects are not in repose; they press themselves forward, ingenuously disposed, at once defiant and inviting.’

Offered in the Hidden Treasures  sale on 27 February at Christie’s London, Nature morte de pêches et poires  marks a critical moment in the artist’s career. It was painted between 1885 and 1887, when he was living in self-imposed exile in Aix. 

‘I fully approve of your idea of coming to work in Paris and then withdrawing to Provence,’ wrote his closest friend, the novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902). ‘I think that’s one way of escaping the influence of the schools and of developing some originality if one has it.’

 Cézanne in Auvers, circa 1874. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay)  Adrien Didierjean

 Cézanne in Auvers, circa 1874. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean

The Provençal town — the artist’s birthplace — liberated Cézanne from the critical gaze of the Paris establishment that mocked him as a ‘barbarian’. Here he was free to pursue a new style, one that engaged with the world through geometry. Wrestling with tones, colours and shapes, Cézanne’s critical and inquiring eye sought to bring a new objectivity to painting through a series of landscapes and still lifes.

‘When you see a Cézanne, it’s like seeing the moon — there’s only one moon, there’s only one Cézanne’ — Max Weber

But this ascetic life was not without its sacrifices. He was lonely — having abandoned his mistress (later wife) and son in Paris — and poor. He exhibited little and sold very few paintings, and this Spartan existence continued until an astute young dealer came calling.

Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) recognised in Cézanne a misunderstood genius. Buying up much of the artist’s work, including Nature morte de pêches et poires, he staged a large solo show in 1895 in which he presented the artist as a paradox — unknown but infamous in artistic circles, the ‘painter’s painter’.

Maurice Denis’ Hommage à Cézanne, 1900-1901, in which the great painter is represented by a still life of a bowl of fruit. Artists and critics crowd round the picture, from left to right the painters Odilon Redon and Édouard Vuillard, the critic André Mellerio, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard behind the easel, the painters Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier

Maurice Denis’ Hommage à Cézanne, 1900-1901, in which the great painter is represented by a still life of a bowl of fruit. Artists and critics crowd round the picture, from left to right: the painters Odilon Redon and Édouard Vuillard, the critic André Mellerio, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard behind the easel, the painters Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier (in front of the canvas), Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard (smoking a pipe) and Denis’ wife, Marthe. Photo: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Many, including the eminent critic Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926), agreed, describing the artist as a ‘truth seeker’ who was ‘haunted by the demon of art’. At the age of 56, Cézanne was heralded as a master, inspiring a younger generation of radical artists who anointed him the founding father of modern art.

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As the American painter Max Weber (1881-1961) once said, ‘When you see a Cézanne, it’s like seeing the moon — there’s only one moon, there’s only one Cézanne.’