This work will be included in the forthcoming online catalogue raisonné of Paul Cézanne's watercolors, under the direction of Walter Feilchenfeldt, David Nash and Jayne Warman.
Cézanne’s dedication to the depiction of nature is consistently felt throughout his oeuvre, and Tronc d’arbre et fleurs is an elegant example of his use of watercolor. Although Cézanne had adopted watercolor for many of his earlier studies, it was in his artistic maturity in the late 1890s that he employed the technique to not only illustrate his surroundings, but also to represent his emotional connection with the natural landscape.
Towards the end of his life, Cézanne gradually withdrew from society. After returning to Provence in the 1890s, he set out to rediscover the familiar landscape of his childhood, and became devoted to the study of the surrounding valleys, forests and the greatly revered Mont Saint-Victoire. Tronc d’arbre et fleurs is a delicate study of the effect of light and color on the forest floor, and is indicative of the artist’s deep connection to Provence. Concentrating on the trunk of a tree and its surrounding foliage, he layered the colors of spring flora upon his initial pencil sketch, creating the dappled effect of light flickering down from the leaves of the canopy. His carefully articulated brushstrokes create a graceful and melodic quality.
Cézanne, perpetually tormented by self-doubt, had less regard for the significance of his watercolors, viewing them as necessary preparatory sketches in his search for a definitive means of visual representation. However, many prominent contemporaries collected and studied them with ardor. Towards the end of his life, Cézanne’s wife and son extracted many of his watercolors and sketches for sale, and many were featured prominently in both the 1907 Bernheim-Jeune exhibition in Paris and the 1912 Sonderbund exhibition in Germany. Cubist artists and members of the Blaue Reiter movement like Robert Delaunay, Paul Klee and August Macke later commented on the effects of Cézanne’s watercolors on their works, citing the impact of the decomposition of forms into planes of color.
In 1911, Cézanne’s watercolors were exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York and, while some found the works too subtle, many lauded them as “an invitation to the viewer to re-experience the perceptions of the painter and to enter into the process of seeing that is captured in the work of art” (M.T. Simms, Cézanne's Watercolors, Between Drawing and Painting, New Haven, 2008, p. 93). Indeed, in all media, Cézanne was focused on “rendering his sensations according to his personal temperament” (ibid., p. 92). The tranquility inherent in Tronc d’arbre et fleurs could therefore be read as a glimpse into the mind of a man who had found solace in isolation, and peace within the landscape that he held so dear. Cézanne considered Provence to be a place “resonant with memory and emotion,” and his devotion to that landscape was captured in all of his works created there (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 4)
(fig 1.) The artist at Les Lauves, Aix-en-Provence, 1904, Photograph by Emile Bernard.