The plaster putto or cupid depicted in the present painting features in no fewer than five oils, five watercolors, and eleven drawings by Cézanne (Rewald, nos. 33, 782-784, 786; Watercolors, nos. 556-558, 560, 566; Chappuis, nos. 980bis-990). The artist was fascinated by the dynamic posture, animated silhouette, and plump curves of the statuette, which is still preserved in his last studio in Les Lauves, and he studied it from every possible angle from the mid-1860s until at least 1900. The present canvas is part of a sequence of four oils that Cézanne painted during a concentrated period of aesthetic exploration in 1894-1895. In two of these, the statuette is integrated into a still-life composition featuring fruit and a blue drapery (Rewald, nos. 782 and 786; fig. 1 and Courtauld Gallery, London); in the other two, it emerges from a shadowy penumbra, which in turn is isolated against the white primed ground (the present example, and Rewald, no. 784; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts). Here, the plaster is rendered in shades of light gray, with accents in taupe and pale pink; the deep, charcoal-colored shadows that surround the statuette form a dramatic contrast with these delicate, chalky tones. The energetic figure strides toward the viewer, the upper body leaning toward the left, seemingly off-balance. It is seen from much the same angle in the Stockholm still-life (fig. 1), but there, it is supported visually by the curtain behind it, while the tectonic system of background elements lends additional stability to the composition. In the present painting, by contrast, the vigorous strokes of the enveloping shadow heighten the sense of dynamic movement; only the faintest vertical line at the far left, suggestive of an architectural setting, exists to halt the forward motion of the chubby figure.
Although the putto is now attributed to François Duquesnoy (1594-1643), it was thought in the nineteenth century to be the work of Pierre Puget (1620-1694), the most revered of all Provençal artists, for whom Cézanne had great regard. He sketched repeatedly after sculptures by Puget in the Louvre, producing more than thirty drawings after his Milo of Crotona, Hercules Resting, and Perseus Rescuing Andromeda, all of which feature the same dynamic, baroque rhythms as the putto. He also painted a house in the remote Riaux Valley that was thought to have been Puget's birthplace (Rewald, no. 438; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Joachim Gasquet, a close friend of Cézanne during the 1890s, included a section about Puget in his book on Cézanne, which includes the following pronouncement from the master of Aix: "If you want to talk about a Provençal, let's talk about Puget... Puget has the mistral in him; he brings marbles to life... Before him sculpture was balanced, an entire block of crystallized light. He gave it color and shading. He used ambient shadow the way his contemporaries used shadows from below" (quoted in M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 149-150).
Cézanne had a complex attitude toward the notion of finish and often left passages of his paintings only lightly worked, as in the present canvas. These more open compositions seem to have exerted a special fascination on Cézanne's fellow painters. Pissarro wrote in 1895, following a visit to Cézanne's first solo exhibition at Vollard's gallery, "There are exquisite things, still-lifes of irreproachable accomplishment, others much worked but left in a suspended state that are still more beautiful" (quoted in Cézanne: Finished-Unfinished, exh. cat., Kunstforum, Vienna, 2000, p. 230). The present painting caught the eye of the connoisseur Maurice Gangnat, who assembled an exceptional collection of some 180 paintings by Renoir starting in 1905. Gangnat also owned at least eight canvases by Cézanne, including an unusually large view of Bellevue that set a record price for the artist's work when it was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 1925, the year after Gangnat's death (Rewald, no. 537).
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, L'Amour en plâtre, 1894-1895. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.