The watercolors that Paul Cézanne painted between the dawn of the 20th century and his death six years later, concentrating on a few key themes—classical bathers, rustic Provençal figures, expansive landscapes, and especially the still lifes of both organic and domestic objects in a studio setting—represent the flowering of his art. We may trace, furthermore, in the course of subsequent decades, the numerous routes along which these precious works on paper bequeathed their visionary program to artists who followed in Cézanne’s pioneering footsteps—those who heeded, further investigated, and independently interpreted his seminal ideas, generating threads of evolutionary continuity and influential impact that shaped the widely varied ways and means of art down to this very day.
Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier dates from this valedictory period; Cézanne painted this still life on the largest sheet size that he was wont to deploy in his use of the watercolor medium. The history of this picture’s ownership is appropriately distinguished; from the fabled dealer Ambroise Vollard to Alexandre Berthier, the fourth and final Prince of Wagram, killed in the First World War, the watercolor eventually made its way to America in 1929, and in 1933 entered the esteemed family collection assembled by Edsel and Eleanor Ford, from which it is presently being offered for sale.
In his late chromatic essays on paper, Cézanne conceived, explored, and settled on the radical manner in which he would also render his final paintings in oils on canvas. The late works in either medium reveal the ultimate reach of the artist’s lifelong studies into our perception of the visible, as surface and depth, and the nature of reality as we experience the world inwardly, from the discerning, sensitive eye to the astute logic of the mind, and, as profoundly, within the deep wellsprings of feeling—“let us seek to express ourselves,” Cézanne advised the painter Émile Bernard in 1905, “according to our individual temperaments” (A. Danchev, ed., The Letters of Paul Cézanne, Los Angeles, 2013, p. 353, no. 253). The principal ideal, the analogy to be joined, the absolute synthesis that Cézanne held up as his goal and steadfastly pursued in his work, is memorably pure and simple, as he announced to the young poet Joachim Gasquet in a letter dated 26 September 1897, “art is a harmony parallel with nature” (Letters, no. 181, p. 287).
The mise-en-scène in Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier is that of a table-top, coffee or tea service, perhaps from breakfast—Cézanne preferred the brilliant, swelling light of the morning hours in which to work. He arranged a blue, enameled pot—used for carrying milk— the pitcher from which it was served, and a porcelain sugar bowl on a white tablecloth bordered in the classic French style with a single red stripe. As humble and ordinary as these component elements are, they nonetheless combine to offer a feast for the eye in varied forms and contrasting colors. Most impressively projecting a sumptuous weaving of vivid hues is the parti-colored textile—variously identified as a tapestry or oriental rug—which appears to be decorated with a luxuriant, Mediterranean floral design, that Cézanne draped over the back of an unseen chair placed alongside the table. Such textiles were key sources of inspiration for Henri Matisse, for whom Cézanne was a seminal influence, as can be seen in his Nature morte au tapis rouge of 1906 (Musée de Grenoble).
The chief objects in this composition are nevertheless the fruits—an uncut, globe-like, green watermelon, slightly distant and off-center within the composition, but still the central site of visual focus and the vanishing point in the picture’s compositional perspective. The melon is moreover, within this sprawling space, the chief source of gravitational force, as it were, holding five red and yellow apples as satellite bodies in its thrall.
The late watercolor still lifes betoken a sea change, so near the end, in Cézanne’s art. “From the 1860s onward Cézanne was a painter of objects. While his contemporaries painted effects, Cézanne painted things,” Lawrence Gowing wrote. “But after 1900 separable physical objects in Cézanne’s work increasingly merge into the flux of color” (M. Doran, ed., “Cézanne: The Logic of Organized Sensations,” Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 181). The painter had hitherto sought, as Maurice Denis recorded his words, “to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring, like the art in museums” (quoted in “Theories,” ibid., p. 169). In the late works, however, Cézanne’s concern to render the tangibility or sculptural aspect of objects in space yielded to a more consuming fascination with the optical phenomenon in nature to which Claude Monet referred in a letter to the writer and critic, Gustave Geffroy, dated 7 October 1890, while painting his haystacks series: “The further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: instantaneity, above all the enveloppe, the same light diffused over everything” (quoted in J. House, Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p. 198).
Indeed, during this late phase in his work, Cézanne was re-aligning his approach more closely with the tenets of Impressionism, which contained—within that fundamental, radical revelation that the artist should paint his sensations before the motif—the seed and impetus of a more transcendent vision of nature, as Monet had begun to express in his water garden Nymphéas paintings during the early years of the new century. Cézanne also spoke of l’enveloppe: “Light through the overall play of reflections is the enveloping atmosphere,” he wrote to Bernard in 1905 (Letters, no. 253, p. 353).
Throughout his career, Cézanne had abjured the conventions of mimetically painting nature, as practiced in the prevailing Salon manner, undertaking instead a self-devised harmony of means that he believed more truthfully represented—by way of the actual properties and capability of paint—the tangible, corporeal presence of the visible world. The magnificent still-life oil paintings of the 1890s epitomize this achievement. Now, only a few years later, Cézanne seemed poised to relinquish the solid, tactile aspect of the objects in his pictures to evoke instead—as a deeper understanding of his sensations had been guiding him—the insubstantial qualities of visual reality: the world as light, perceived through the phenomena of color.
Such is the luminous effect that Cézanne demonstrates in the Ford House Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier. The apparent openness of space, and especially the limpid quality of the light that invests the room, as manifest in an autumnal brilliance of color—whether innately warm or cool, each tone gives off a sun-struck, incandescent heat—both contribute to generating the magical envelope. It appears unlikely that Cézanne painted this composition in the attic studio—cramped and not very well lit—that he used in his residence at 23, rue Boulegon, in the center of Aix, to which he moved in 1899, following the death of his mother and the sale of the Jas de Bouffan, the family estate on the outskirts of the city. Instead, the sheet suggests the spacious interior of the specially designed atelier building that contractors completed for Cézanne in September 1902 on the Chemin des Lauves, a road leading up to the heights north of and overlooking Aix. Cézanne probably utilized in the present watercolor the brightest, direct sunlight available to him, streaming in through two large windows on the south side of the building.
Cézanne regarded the still-life subject in watercolor as the most controllable and productive test-bed for his research into the properties of light and color, and thereafter translated his findings to outdoor subjects in oils on canvas. “The watercolors are very beautiful,” the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote after attending Cézanne’s memorial retrospective exhibition that Galerie Bernheim-Jeune mounted of some eighty such works in June 1907—“just as confident as the paintings, and as light as the paintings are heavy…wonderfully arranged and with a security of touch, as if mirroring a melody” (letter to his wife Clara Westhoff, 28 June 1907; quoted in M. Simms, op. cit., 2008, pp. 165-166).
Émile Bernard left to us the only eye-witness account of Cézanne painting a watercolor. While staying in Aix for just over a month in early 1904, Bernard met with the artist almost daily. While Bernard worked on an oil painting, Cézanne began a watercolor, sur le motif, of the great mountain that became emblematic of his life’s work:
“His method was unique, excessively complicated, and absolutely unrelated to usual procedures. He began [in the shadows] with a stroke of umber, which he covered by a second stroke which extended beyond the first, then a third, until all these colors, like folding screens, modeled and at the same time colored the object. I then understood that laws of harmony guided his work and that all these modulations had a goal, determined in advance in his mind… Generalizing some rules, he drew from them the principles that he applied by a kind of convention, so that he only interpreted what he saw, he did not copy it” (“Memories of Paul Cézanne,” M. Doran, ed., op. cit., 2001, p. 60).
Cézanne explained the essence of his method to Bernard, who noted his comments: “The eye and brain must serve each other. The artist must work at developing them mutually: the eye for a vision of nature [une optique] and the brain for the logic of organized sensations [une logique], which provides the means of expression” (ibid., p. 38).
Although its traces are for the most part only faintly apparent, overpowered by the sheer strength of the hues in the present and other late watercolors, drawing is nonetheless a driving, integral contributor to the effect of l’enveloppe in these compositions. Throughout his career, Cézanne had been as ardent and probative a draughtsman as he was a painter, in the innovative and idiosyncratic manner that characterizes every aspect of his production. Many of his earlier watercolors are, in their method of execution, colored line drawings, in which the addition of hue provides a tonal affirmation of linear form and the space around it. In Cézanne’s practice of drawing, the indication of contours is never a hard and fast line, but appears to oscillate, in repetitive strokes of the pencil, as if to evoke the tremulous effect of light falling on form.
In the late watercolors, the artist drew in an even freer manner. While he might first sketch lines on the blank sheet to summarily situate the objects in his composition, he ultimately established the appearance of contour in applications of color—a cool blue or deep red, for example—around the perimeter of the object against a light ground, or in tonal contrasts where one object fronts or abuts another; there are neither clear contours nor any precise delimitation of form. Other lines may appear random, serving no apparent purpose, structural or otherwise. Matthew Simms, however, has pointed out that “line, in Cézanne’s later watercolors, does not refer to form but to something else, nothing other than the air that envelopes forms and dissolves them in optical perception… The opposition of tactile drawing and optical color is here overcome in the envelope of shimmering, vibrating touches of line and color” (op. cit., 2008, pp. 142, 144, and 146).
In Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier, the stacked composition of objects, rising to the arching handle of the blue pot, all contained within the diagonal edge of the tablecloth on the right, and the slanting fold in the tapestry along the left side, affirm Cézanne’s conscious use of a classical, pyramidal structure. This formal device is even more apparent in Nature morte au pot au lait bleu, 1900-1906 (Rewald, no. 572; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), a sister variation on these motifs, less the melon, which the blue pot has replaced as the central point of visual focus. Cézanne viewed the Getty configuration of objects from a vantage point which is a quarter-turn clockwise from the position he assumed when painting the Ford House still life, so that the right edge of the table in the latter picture was then facing him; two more apples fill the exposed space. In contrast to the Getty picture, the composition in the Ford House watercolor is weighted more heavily on the left side; it is more asymmetrical and rather daringly balanced overall. In its elevated, rising prospect, the present Nature morte resembles a hillside landscape, its crest forming an irregular skyline against the firmament—the tea ware and fruits may be likened to a village hamlet nestled within it, the wainscoting having become a distant horizon.
The object forms and their pictorial environment in this still life conform to the prescription that Cézanne enunciated in a letter to Bernard dated 15 April 1904: “Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth… Lines perpendicular to the horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere” (Letters, no. 233, p. 334). Cézanne wrote Bernard on 25 July 1904: “In order to make progress in realization, there is only nature, and an eye educated by contact with it. It becomes concentric by dint of looking and working. I mean that in an orange, in an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point, and this point is always closest to our eye, the edges of objects recede towards a center placed at eye level. With only a little temperament one can be a lot of painter” (Letters, no. 237, p. 342).
The culminating point that Cézanne described to Bernard is the essential, central highlight on any rotund or convex form, which an artist working in opaque oil colors or gouache would typically apply as a final, crowning touch or two of white paint. The artist working in transparent watercolor, however, if a purist committed to the traditional rigors of the technique, instead relies upon his skillful, judicious use of the reserve, the white color of the blank sheet on which he is painting. The reserve becomes the source of light, as it were, that illuminates the transparent, fluid films of watercolor—like stained glass—from within, and lends the technique its distinctive brilliance, as if one were painting with liquid light. Cézanne also constituted portions of the reserve to stand for both the white pitcher and sugar bowl, as well at the tablecloth on which they rest. The application of paint, alongside the deliberate absence of it, is but one of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in Cézanne’s groundbreaking pictorial logic and practice during his final years.
“He is at once the finale of the classical tradition and the result of the great crisis of liberty and light which gave modern art new life,” Denis wrote in the journal L’Occident, September 1907, in anticipation of the Cézanne memorial retrospective that opened on 1 October at the annual, avant-garde Salon d’Automne (M. Doran, ed., op. cit., 2001, p. 178). That exhibition, together with the selection of Cézanne’s watercolors seen earlier that year at Bernheim-Jeune, were milestone events in the accelerating evolution of early modern art during the years leading up to the First World War.
In November 1929, the inaugural exhibition at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in New York opened—another landmark event in the story of modern art. First Loan Exhibition: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh featured, alongside works by these other leading masters, six watercolors by the artist, of which Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier was the sole example of Cézanne’s revelatory still lifes.
“Matisse and the Fauves, the Expressionists and the Cubists,” Clement Greenberg wrote in 1952, “all took up where Cézanne—and Gauguin and Van Gogh—had left off, and the final result has been abstract painting, which is the flattest pictorial art we have ever seen in the West” (J. O’Brian, ed., “Cézanne: Gateway to Modern Painting” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Chicago, 1993, vol. 3, p. 118).