This work will be included in the forthcoming online catalogue raisonné of Paul Cézanne’s watercolours under the direction of Walter Feilchenfeldt, David Nash and Jayne Warman.
In 1898, shortly before he painted this delicate and luminous watercolour, Cézanne received a visit from a young, aspiring artist named Louis Le Bail, who left a remarkable record of the way that ‘the new master of still life’ (as the esteemed critic Thadée Natanson had recently dubbed him) composed his iconic paintings of apples and oranges, peaches and pears: ‘Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, the greens against the reds, the yellows against the blues, tipping, turning, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be using coins of one or two sous for the purpose,’ Le Bail wrote. ‘He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions; one guessed that it was a feast for the eye to him’ (quoted in Cézanne Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Tübingen, 1993, p. 172).
In Oranges et verre, the results of Cézanne’s prolonged deliberations and consummate formal inventiveness are clearly in evidence. Of some two dozen kitchen still-lifes in oil and watercolour that the artist painted during the early twentieth century, this is among the most restrained and resolved. Rejecting the contrivances of his more elaborate, ‘symphonic’ still-lifes, Cézanne has here pared down his motifs to a plate of beautifully coloured oranges and a half-full wine glass, set atop a plain white tablecloth. The same platter of fruit appears in a closely related watercolour in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Rewald no. 553), but Cézanne has drawn closer to the motif in the present sheet and has tipped the tabletop slightly forward, lending the unassuming oranges a heightened monumentality. ‘Cézanne showed a superb inventiveness,’ John Rewald has written, ‘when…without repeating the arrangements, he managed, quite the contrary, to achieve a new balance and a new harmony of colors by shifting the familiar objects and regrouping them in an astonishing variety of compositions’ (J. Rewald, Cézanne: A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 181).
In the present sheet, the fruits are described with washes of red near the contours, turning into pale yellow toward the interior, with the centres formed by the pure white of the paper. Light enters the scene from the upper right, passing through the glass and creating contrasting pools of blue shadow. ‘The circulatory motion, the plasticity of the fruit, and the measurable distance of the verticals of the wallpaper,’ Alfred Neumeyer has written, ‘create a simple and grand harmony that is expressive of our fundamental sensory experiences: space, direction, balance, and motion’ (A. Neumeyer, Cézanne Drawings, New York, 1958, p. 53). ‘In order to make progress, there is only nature, and the eye educates itself by contact with nature,’ Cézanne explained to the painter Emile Bernard, three decades his junior. ‘It becomes concentric by looking and working. What I mean is that, in an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point; and this point is always – despite the tremendous effect: light and shadow, sensations colorantes – the closest to our eye’ (quoted in A. Danchev, Cézanne, A Life, New York, 2012, p. 158).
Although the delicately rendered fruits in Oranges et verre are first and foremost objects of formal contemplation, abstract and absolute in themselves, they betoken a deeper meaning as well. In Cézanne’s persistent preference for firm, compact, centred fruits of a familiar yet subtle beauty, we find an acknowledged kinship of the painter and his subject matter – an avowal of a reserved and ascetic man more at home with the peasants of his province than with its gentry. Cézanne’s apples and oranges also serve as a site of sublimated desire, displacing the turbulent passions and violent eroticism of his youthful work. ‘[They] are often the objects of a caressing vision,’ Meyer Schapiro has explained. ‘He loves their finely asymmetrical roundness and the delicacy of their rich local color which he sometimes evokes through an exquisite rendering rarely found in his painting of nude flesh’ (M. Schapiro, Modern Art: Selected Papers, New York, 1978, pp. 27-28).
By the time that Cézanne painted Oranges et verre (circa 1900 per Rewald, in 1900-1905 per Venturi), the legendarily reclusive artist had finally begun to enjoy considerable acclaim. His first one-man show at Vollard’s gallery in 1895 had catapulted him out of relative obscurity, and he exhibited widely during the final decade of his career, both in the Parisian salons and outside of France. After the sale of his family’s estate, the Jas de Bouffan, in 1899, Cézanne divided his time between a modest apartment at 23, rue Boulegon in Aix and a secluded studio that he had purpose-built on the nearby hill of Les Lauves, which served as his sanctuary and his tonic. ‘I work tenaciously,’ he informed Vollard in 1903. ‘I glimpse the Promised Land’ (quoted in A. Danchev, op. cit., 2012, p. 331).
Although Cézanne’s lustrous last years were not without their tribulations (he was still viciously attacked in the press, and his health was in decline), he was deeply moved by the reverence and respect of the young writers, poets, and artists who made a pilgrimage to Aix to meet him. ‘Perhaps you will now have some idea of the place you occupy in the painting of our time,’ Maurice Denis wrote to him, ‘of the admiration you inspire, and of the enlightened enthusiasm of a few young people, myself included, who can rightly call themselves your students’ (quoted in Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 559).
‘Even before his death in 1906,’ Mary Tompkins Lewis has explained, ‘Cézanne was celebrated in Paris as a forefather, and a crucial aesthetic force whose influence on a new generation of avant-garde painters had become virtually inescapable. 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 Cézanne’s critical status in the annals of early modernist art. In the first decade of the twentieth century, in fact, an era of prolific artistic invention in France, Cézanne cast one of the most imposing shadows’ (M. Tompkins Lewis, Cézanne, London, 2000, p. 325).
On the verso of Oranges et verre is a pencil study of a young man reading, which Rewald has suggested may depict Cézanne’s son Paul (1872-1947). Throughout the 1880s, Paul had been one of the artist’s favourite portrait subjects, appearing in at least nine oils and more than a hundred works on paper. The present drawing, in contrast, is the only recorded portrait of Paul from Cézanne’s final decade, which the artist’s son spent mainly in Paris rather than Aix, acting as an agent for his father with Vollard and other dealers. This sensitive sketch, which shows Paul engrossed in a book, his chin cupped in his hand and his brow lightly furrowed, is testament to Cézanne’s enduring depth of feeling for his grown son, whom he described in 1903 as ‘a great philosopher’ and ‘a good boy’ (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 562).