From April 1879 until March 1880, an utterly transformative moment in the career of this most revolutionary painter, Cézanne lived with his mistress Hortense and their young son Paul at Melun, a small town on the river Almont near the Forest of Fontainebleau. During months of intensive plein-air work at L’Estaque the previous year, Cézanne had struggled to impose an ideal pictorial logic on the vagaries of the natural world—“to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring,” as he would later explain, “like the art in museums” (quoted in P.M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 169). Now, back in the north, these arduous experiments crystallized at long last, giving rise to some of Cézanne’s most synthetic and rigorously structured landscapes to date. When a particularly harsh winter descended on the region, forcing the artist to retreat indoors, he turned to still-life, pursuing his radically new means of expression in well over a dozen table-top compositions of apples, peaches, and pears.
“These works culminate a decade of extraordinary development and change in his work and may be seen to mark a critical turning point for Cézanne—the transition from Impressionism to the mature style of his later years,” Eliza Rathbone has written. “In this series of paintings, Cézanne was with great deliberation laying the foundation of his future work, rearranging the same few elements to explore variations on a theme” (Impressionist Still Life, exh. cat., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 118).
Many of the still-lifes that Rewald and other scholars have positively associated with Cézanne’s stay at Melun share the identical wallpaper background, of a bluish-gray hue with delicate sprays of leaves (see J. Rewald, op. cit., 1996, pp. 280-281 for discussion). The present Poires dans une assiette blanche has the same distinctive elongated format and exceptional firmness of volumes as one of the canvases in the blue-wallpaper group (Rewald, no. 356; Národní Galerie, Prague), suggesting that it too dates to the Melun winter. In lieu of the familiar floral backdrop, however, Cézanne has here experimented with a dark, broadly brushed ground that provides a perfect foil for the densely treated pears, rendered in a tight weave of regular, diagonal brushstrokes. “The vivid green of the fruit is set against a background of such a dark green as to appear black at first glance; the shadow of the white plate at right is of the same dark color,” Rewald has noted. “This contrast provides the small painting with great power” (ibid., p. 237).
Beneath the dark ground is a layer of warm, eggshell-colored oil paint that Cézanne applied on top of the primed canvas, creating a smoothly textured surface on which to work. At the upper right and lower left corners of the composition, he deliberately left a portion of this light, luminous hue exposed—like a halo around the central motif, echoing the contour of the oval platter and its shadow. The effect is one of forceful centripetal compression, which draws the eye inexorably toward the center of the image with its meticulously balanced trio of pears, each a singular piece of painting. The pear on the right is a pure, grassy green; the middle one shows traces of ruby red, and the one on the left turns to golden yellow. “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,” recounted the young painter Louis Le Bail, who once watched Cézanne at work. “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).
Among the numerous still-lifes from Melun, Poires dans une assiette blanche is among the most exquisitely intimate and spare—a composition of exceptional inventiveness, created from the very simplest of means. “These can be viewed as studies in which the artist examined his subject from every angle,” Henri Loyrette has written about Cézanne’s canvases of isolated fruit, “thoroughly perusing their globular forms, seemingly simple, in reality quite complex: in short, as visual exercises in which he practiced his tonal scales, carefully gauging the effect produced by juxtapositions of greens, yellows, and reds. Alternatively, they can be regarded as self-sufficient little pictures that, like Manet’s Asparagus, deliberately reject the contrivances visible in the larger works to showcase motifs so simple as to border on abstraction” (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 174).
The calculated equilibrium of the present still-life may also reflect the state of relative stability in which Cézanne found himself in 1879-1880, having endured a period of unrelenting personal turmoil during the preceding year. In March 1878, he had left his apartment at 67, rue de l’Ouest in Paris, where he had lived since late 1876 with Hortense and Paul, and returned to the haven of his family home outside Aix. He installed his young family in a spartan apartment at Marseille, a safe distance away from his authoritarian father, who knew nothing of their existence. It was not long, however, before Louis-Auguste wised up to his son’s secret. Irate, he cut Cézanne’s monthly stipend to a meager 100 francs, forcing the artist to beseech his childhood friend Zola for periodic subsidies. Cézanne, obstinate and embarrassed, denied the liaison and fled Aix for the relative peace of L’Estaque.
As 1878 drew to a close, matters took an unexpectedly favorable turn. Louis-Auguste relented in his persecutions, doubtless at the urging of Cézanne’s mother, and increased the artist’s allowance threefold once again. “Incredible,” Cézanne reported to Zola. “I believe he’s making eyes at a charming little maid we have in Aix; mother and I are in L’Estaque. What a turn-up” (quoted in A. Danchev, Cézanne, A Life, New York, 2012, p. 157). By the time Cézanne arrived at Melun in the spring of 1879, he had every reason to feel optimistic. He was reunited with Hortense and Paul, the latter of whom he enrolled in the local school, and his finances, for the moment at least, were secure. He had a wealth of promising landscape motifs close at hand, easy access to the capital, and—most important of all—a clear path forward artistically.
The pears in the present canvas—though first and foremost objects of contemplation, abstract and absolute in themselves—also serve as vessels for Cézanne’s most profound, sublimated emotions at this moment of personal and creative discovery. Clustered tightly together in the snug embrace of the platter, the three pears may be understood as surrogates for Paul, Hortense, and Cézanne himself, safely ensconced at Melun. The pear in the center, the smallest of the trio, leans into the maternal roundness of the yellow fruit at the left, its long stem like an umbilical cord or an arm reaching out for comfort and succor. The large green pear at the right—the paterfamilias of the group—stands proudly and protectively over the other two yet tilts slightly away from them, resolutely maintaining a certain independence. Light enters the scene from the left, and the smaller pears seem to turn towards it, soaking up its gentle warmth; the green pear, by contrast, leans to the right, resisting stasis, forging ahead into the shadowy unknown.
“In this carefully arranged society of perfectly submissive things,” Meyer Schapiro has written, “the painter could project typical relations of human beings as well as qualities of the larger visible world—solitude, contact, accord, conflict, serenity, abundance, and luxury—and even states of elation and enjoyment” (Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, New York, 1978, pp. 30-31).