Formerly in the collection of the renowned art historian and collector Kenneth Clark, this is the last Czanne oil of the Chteau Noir still in private hands. The Chteau Noir was a principal site of Czanne's work at the end of his life, and like the Mont Sainte-Victoire, is among the key motifs of his late pictures. The present painting, with its vibrant mosaic of green and blue brushstrokes, its proto-cubistic sense of structure, and its powerful overall rhythm, is an outstanding example of the artist's late style.
Poised on a hill overlooking the road from Aix-en-Provence to Le Tholonet, the Chteau Noir (fig. 1) was a neo-Gothic extravagance erected by a rich coal merchant during the third quarter of the nineteenth century; construction was abandoned before completion, and the building had the air of a romantic ruin. Despite its name, the edifice was ochre in color rather than black. Czanne and Zola had roamed this section of the countryside as children, and in later life Czanne still felt a great attachment to the area. Beginning in 1887, Czanne rented a room at the Chteau Noir in order to store his painting supplies there and he frequently worked sur le motif in the forest on its grounds; in 1899 he even made an unsuccessful offer to buy the Chteau. Of Czanne's surviving pictures, twenty oil paintings and four watercolors have been identified as made at the Chteau Noir.
Of these only six oil paintings show the Chteau itself. One (now in the Oskar Reinhart Collection, Am Rmerholz, Winterthur) is thought to date from the 1890s (fig. 2); the other five, including the present work, are all dated around 1904; but there is no agreement among scholars as to their precise chronology or order of creation. With the exception of the present picture, all these late images of the Chteau Noir are in major museums: the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (fig. 3); the Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo (fig. 4); the Muse Picasso, Paris (fig. 5); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (fig. 6). The picture in Paris once belonged to Picasso, and the painting in New York to Claude Monet. That these artists--and Kenneth Clark--owned three of the six versions indicates the extraordinary importance of the series.
At the time of their creation, Czanne was at the height of his powers. In his letters in 1904, Czanne wrote:
I am working doggedly, for I see the promised land before me. Shall I be like the great Hebrew leader [Moses] or shall I be able to enter?... I remain in the grip of sense-perceptions and, in spite of my age, riveted to painting... Let us go forth to study beautiful nature... let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperament. Time and reflection, moreover, modify little by little our vision, and at last comprehension comes to us. (Quoted in R. Kendell, ed., Czanne by Himself, London, 1988, pp. 235, 237 and 240)
The intense engagement with painting and nature expressed in these letters is evident as well in the present picture which is at once vividly sensual and fiercely cerebral.
A fundamental aspect of the picture's beauty is the arrangement of the painting surface as a mosaic of large colored patches. This technique was invented by Czanne and is most evident in his late works; it was, moreover, foundational for the later development of Cubism. Czanne himself has explained the aesthetic logic of this new technique:
To read nature is to see it, as if through a veil, in terms of an interpretation in patches of color following one another according to a law of harmony. These major hues are thus analyzed through modulations. Painting is classifying one's sensations of color. (Quoted in L. Gowing, exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1977-1978, p. 57)
Czanne described his working method to Gasquet:
I join together nature's straying hand... From all sides, here, there and everywhere I select colors, tones and shade; I set them down, I bring them together... They make lines. They become objects--rocks, trees--without my thinking about them. They take on volume, value. If, as I perceive them, these volumes and values on my canvas correspond to the places and patches of color that lie before me, that appear to my eye, well then, my canvas joins hands. It holds firm. It aims neither too high nor too low. It's true, dense, full. (Quoted in J. Guillaud, Czanne in Provence, New York, 1989, p. 98)
Emile Bernard, who was privileged to watch Czanne paint a landscape in 1904, recorded:
His method was remarkable, absolutely different from the usual way and extremely complicated. He began on the shadow with a single patch, which he then overlapped with a second, and a third, until these hues, hinging to one another, not only colored the object, but also modeled its form. I realized then that it was a law of harmony that directed his work and that the course these modulations took was fixed beforehand in his mind. In short, he proceeded in the way that must have been taken by the old tapestry makers, making related colors follow one another to the point at which opposing contrasts met. (Quoted in ibid., p. 98)
This technique was rooted in Czanne's profound understanding of color harmony; but was the product as well of his deep conviction that Nature was both structure and surface, Being and Becoming. As he explained to Gasquet, "It is our business as artists to convey the thrill of nature's permanence along with elements and appearance of all its changes. Painting must give us the flavor of nature's eternity" (quoted in ibid., p. 98); it was for this end that Czanne tried to "join together nature's straying hand," For Czanne, nature was "the spectacle that the Pater Omnipotens Aterne Deus (God the Eternal Omnipotent Father) spreads out before our eyes" (quoted in R. Kendell, ed., op. cit., p. 236). Nature was sacred, sublime, and art, Czanne mused, was "a priesthood that demands the pure in heart who must belong to it entirely" (quoted in ibid., p. 235).
The beauty of the present work rests not only in its purity and ideality, but also in its extraordinary manifestation of pulsating life. Meyer Shapiro commented, "The paintings of Czanne's last years have an epic largeness...[they] are tremendously alive, throbbing with color and the powerful rhythm of the brush strokes" (M. Shapiro, Paul Czanne, New York, 1952). This comment is certainly true of the present picture where the trees seem to sway gracefully in the breeze. The sense of shimmering energy in the brushwork was an effect Czanne consciously worked to achieve. In 1896, he wrote to Joachim Gasquet of his desire to paint "the vibrating sensations reflected by this good soil of Provence" (quoted in T. Reff, exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1977-1978, p. 26); and in 1904 he spoke to Emile Bernard of "the need to introduce into our light vibrations...a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air" (quoted in R. Kendell, ed., op. cit., p. 236). Kenneth Clark once wrote:
Czanne's mastery of his means of expression made him...able to apply it to such fugitive effects as trees in the wind and achieve masterpieces of construction, in which the feeling for life and movement is actually greater than in a Monet, because it is felt throughout the whole design. In spite of great simplifications--there is no attempt to delineate a leaf--these trees are remarkably true to nature. (K. Clark, Landscape into Art, London, 1949, p. 126)
These comments are so apt for the present picture that one wonders if Clark was thinking of it (or indeed sitting before it) as he wrote.
In regard to the picture's state of execution, John Rewald remarked:
The application of paint, while by no means thin, is considerably less heavy than in other versions of the same subject... Yellow tonal values are most carefully balanced and interrelated, so that this is not to be considered either a preparatory study nor an 'unfinished' painting, but simply as a work whose execution was interrupted at the present stage. (J. Rewald, op. cit., p. 542)
Czanne in 1905 wrote to Bernard:
Now, being old, nearly 70 years, the sensations of color, which give the light, are for me the reason for the abstractions which do not allow me to cover my canvas entirely nor to pursue the delimitation of the objects where their points of contact are fine and delicate; from which it results that my image or picture is incomplete. (quoted in R. Kendell, ed., op. cit., p. 241)
Kenneth Clark, who owned the picture, was among the greatest connoisseurs of Czanne's art. Even as a young boy he loved Czanne's work, and he eventually purchased fifty watercolors and several oils from Ambroise Vollard in the late 1920s and early 1930s during visits to Paris to study Renaissance art at the Louvre. As director of the National Gallery, Clark hung the first Czanne exhibited there; he is the dedicate of the English version of Rewald's edition of Czanne's letters; and in one volume of his autobiography, Clark mentions visiting "the Chteau Noir, where Czanne painted, a holy spot to me" (K. Clark, The Other Half, New York, 1977, p. 226).
(fig. 1) Chteau Noir, photograph of the motif
Photo by John Rewald
(fig. 2) Paul Czanne, Chteau Noir, circa 1894-1895
Oskar Reinhart Collection, Am Rmerholz, Winterthur
(fig. 3) Paul Czanne, Chteau Noir, 1900-1904
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
(fig. 4) Paul Czanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and Chteau Noir, 1904-1906
Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo
(fig. 5) Paul Czanne, Chteau Noir, 1904-1906
Muse Picasso, Paris
(fig. 6) Paul Czanne, Chteau Noir, 1904-1906
Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Mrs. David M. Levy
(fig. 7) Paul Czanne, Chteau Noir devant La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1890-1895
Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna
(fig. 8) Paul Czanne, Le Chteau Noir, circa 1904 (detail)