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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Cézanne, The Basket of Apples

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
In David's Neo-Classical era, still life was considered the least important subject type. Only minor artists bothered with what was then seen as the most purely decorative and trivial of painting subjects. The hierarchy of subjects went roughly from the most important—historical and religious themes (often very large in scale); to important—portraiture (usually of moderate scale); less important—landscape & genre (themes of common life, usually of modest scale); to least important— still life (generally small canvases).
Willem Kalf, Still Life with Ewer, Vessels, and Pomegranate, mid 1640s, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 103.5 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA)

A hopeless subject

There had been one significant historical exception. In the 17th century in Northern Europe and particularly in the Netherlands, still life blossomed. But this period was brief and had little impact in France other than in the work of Chardin. So why would Cézanne turn so often to this discredited subject?
It was the very fact that still life was so neglected that seems to have attracted Cézanne to it. So outmoded was the iconography (symbolic forms and references) in still life that this rather hopeless subject was freed of virtually all convention. Here was a subject that offered extraordinary freedom, a blank slate that gave Cézanne the opportunity to invent meaning unfettered by tradition. And Cézanne would almost single-handedly revive the subject of still life making it an important subject for Picasso, Matisse, and others in the 20th century.
Pablo Picasso, Nature morte au compotier (Still Life with Compote and Glass), 1914-15, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 78.7 (Columbus Museum of Art)
The image at the top of this page looks simple enough, a wine bottle, a basket tipped up to expose a bounty of fruit inside, a plate of what are perhaps stacked cookies or small rolls, and a tablecloth both gathered and draped. Nothing remarkable, at least not until one begins to notice the odd errors in drawing. Look, for instance, at the lines that represent the close and far edge of the table. I remember an old student of mine remarking to the class, "I would never hire him as a carpenter!" What she had noticed was the odd stepping of a line that we expect to be straight.

Purposeful errors

But that is not all that is wrong. The table seems to be too steeply tipped at the left, so much so that the fruit is in danger of rolling off it. The bottle looks tipsy and the cookies are very odd indeed. The cookies stacked below the top layer seem as if they are viewed from the side, but at the same moment, the two on top seem to pop upward as if we were looking down at them. This is an important key to understanding the questions that we've raised about Cézanne's pictures so far.
Cookies (detail), Paul Cézanne, detail The Basket of Apples, c. 1893, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)
Like Edouard Manet, from whom he borrowed so much, Cézanne was prompted to rethink the value of the various illusionistic techniques that he had inherited from the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. This was due in part to the growing impact of photography and its transformation of modern representation. While Degas and Monet borrowed from the camera the fragmenting of time, Cézanne saw this mechanized segmentation of time as artificial and at odds with the perception of the human eye. By Cézanne's era, the camera did shatter time into fragments as do non-digital cameras that can be set so that the shutter is open to light for only 1/1000 of a second.

Sight and memory

Cézanne pushed this distinction between the vision of the camera and of human vision. He reasoned that the same issues applied to the illusionism of the old masters, of Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, etc. For instance, think about how linear perspective works. Since the Early Renaissance, constructing the illusion of space required that the artist remain frozen in a single point in space in order maintain consistent recession among all receding orthogonals. This frozen vantage point belongs to both the artist and then the viewer. But is it a full description of the the experience of human sight? Cézanne's still life suggests that it is not.
If a Renaissance painter set out to render Cézanne's still life objects (not that they would, mind you), that artist would have placed himself in a specific point before the table and taken great pains to render the collection of tabletop objects only from that original perspective. Every orthogonal line would remain consistent (and straight). But this is clearly not what Cézanne had in mind. His perspective seems jumbled. When we first look carefully, it may appear as if he was simply unable to draw, but if you spend more time, it may occur to you that Cézanne is, in fact, drawing carefully, although according to a new set of rules.
Seemingly simple, Cézanne's concern with representing the true experience of sight had enormous implications for 20th century visual culture. Cézanne realized that unlike the fairly simple and static Renaissance vision of space, people actually see in a fashion that is more complex, we see through both time and space. In other words, we move as we see. In contemporary terms, one might say that human vision is less like the frozen vision of a still camera and more akin to the continuous vision of a video camera except that he worked with oil on canvas which dries and becomes static.
Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apple s (detail), c. 1893, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

Purposeful destruction

So very tentatively, Cézanne began the purposeful destruction of the unified image. Look again at the cookies, or whatever they are, stacked upon the plate in the upper right. Is it possible that the gentle disagreements that we noted result from the representation of two slightly different view points? These are not large ruptures, but rather, they suggest careful and tentative discovery. It is as if Cézanne had simply depicted the bottom cookies as he looked across at them and then as he looked more slightly down at the top cookies after shifting his weight to his forward leg. Furthermore, I'm not sure that he was all that proud of these breaks that allow for more than a single perspective. Look, for instance, at the points where the table must break to express these multiple perspectives and you will notice that they are each hidden from view. Nevertheless, in doing this, Cézanne changed the direction of painting.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
Additional resources:

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Japhet Zayas
    What Cezanne sought to accomplish was the presentation of simultaneous viewpoints. The objects at the far right of the canvas are tilted toward the viewer standing at the center of the painting as if he were facing them from the left corner of the painting. Conversely the objects at the far left of the canvas are tilted toward the viewer as if he were facing them from the right corner. The biscuits on the plate are constructed so that those at the top are rising and about to flip toward the viewer. And the bottle of wine is leaning to the left. If you were to draw lines of perspectives from each grouping of objects at the corners of the table and the loose apples within the folds of cloth, the various planes would appear to be collapsing from their respective locations toward the viewer in the center. You don't have to move your head. The objects are coming at you aided by the tilt of the broken planes of the table. These are more than multiple viewpoints: they are simultaneous viewpoints and qualifies as the precursor of CUBISM for breaking with the standard representation of three dimensional objects on a two dimensional plane. When Picasso saw Cezanne's work for the first time, he commented to Matisse, "We've been doing it all wrong." Picasso pointed out the "little cubes" to Matisse in Cezanne's mountain landscapes. Not long afterwards cubism came to the fore. For this reason Cezanne is called the "Father of Modern Art," and "The First Post- Impressionist." There was nothing wrong with his vision or ability to draw: he was a true visionary.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 17dlaminil
    how come there is not enough of information
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Etoile Nocturne
    Panoramic photo - is probably a more precised analogy than video cam. Pano photo does exactely the same thing as what these artists do here : put a moving view experience on one static surface. And some times if the movement is not smooth, we get a "Picasso" like image ( such as the cat with hundred legs , people with a hole on the face, architectures or frames edges break, spaces twist etc... ) . Imagine if they lived today, holding a phone with pano cam :D
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Donghyun Kang
      I disagree. What the author meant with video camera is very clear and understandable. Someone on the move films an object and captures its different aspects, while Cezanne similarly depicted an object from multiple viewpoints.
      Unlike this, panoramic photo is mostly used to capture a landscape or your surroundings, not a single object. Camera moves, but it does not represent multiple perspectives on an object.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Sasadrazaaliwaris Raza
    how life - like is the scene ?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Why was Paul Cézanne the first to paint in this "fragmented" style? Was it mostly to do with the fact that the camera and film were being introduced to the world at the same time that Cézanne began painting?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user ursula barril
      He was a genius ... and so he looked and saw things from more than one perspective (perhaps he had a puff of pot) . He was utterly immersed in his art - he saw, felt, heard and smelled it. His watercolors are magnificent. With one tiny stroke of watercolor and a pencil line he produced volume and structure that is just amazing.
      (0 votes)