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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:20

The conservator's eye: Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory

Video transcript

[Music] I'm on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Jim Coddington the longtime chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art we're standing in front of Madame Susan in the conservatory this extraordinary painting of his wife when I as a conservator looked at a painting I'm looking both at what we can see and cannot see trying to understand the artists studio practice Cezanne would have started with the selection of his stretcher size the stretcher is a wooden construction around which the canvas is stretched these stretchers were commercially available theta actually developed a system of sizes that could be ordered by an artist the next step would be to apply a sizing so the textile itself is too smooth it's too absorbent so whatever layer you put on next which we called the ground layer might get absorbed into the canvas and in Susan's case often that ground is visible we do see the ground layer not only where it's not been painted but where he has integrated into the composition now there are choices with the color of the ground here Cezanne has chosen quite a luminous color the first really important aesthetic decision the artist makes is what color is the ground what color am I going to be painting on if you choose a dark or middle tone ground you paint away from the middle tone and the darks you paint against that middle tone ground whereas if you're starting with a white ground then if you paint very thinly the luminosity of the ground will shine through and we see that especially in the very thinly painted area in the lower right corner where we can see Madame Susan's dress barely covers that ground the next step for him would be to outline the forms of the composition with a graphite pencil we can see it the application of the graphite directly on the ground layer the lines are so loose it's clear that he was not trying to define the edges of the fingers he's really trying to block out the composition it's very loosely done as is the next layer which are the very thin washes of a blue he's not trying to outline and paint within the forms he's refining the composition as it goes along layer by layer he then goes to other colors and begins to further block in the composition from the right side of the picture the one sees some very thin applications of green and then he also begins to mix some of the paints together some of the Blues have a little bit of white mixed into them he's just circling the problem that he has of the composition and as it continues on the paint becomes thicker and more opaque he's taking colors that seem to belong to one area and he draws them in to other areas for example the glove that's closest to us has that beautiful ochre in it that you see it in the area that surrounds her it's as if he's finding applications as he has that paint on his brush he is constructing form through fairly conventional devices that ogreish form which is slightly forward it's a warm tonality the other glove is cool warm tends to come forward cool tends to go back he is suggesting that one arm is catching a little bit of light and the other arm is in shadow and that sense of opacity of the paint is clearest as we rise to the shoulders and the areas around the face the amount of labor that goes into the various parts of the painting is quite diverse here the thing that holds the viewers eye the most which is her face she has developed the composition most fully there he continues to rework the face to get a sense of modeling and form again using these techniques of warm and cool but also light and dark my eye moves fairly quickly over the more summery areas of the painting and like a magnet is drawn to that face he's constantly adjusting even the tilt of the head you can see some working around the edges of her head although it is the most resolved part of the painting there is still a certain degree of play because of some choices that he's made especially around the eyes they're so dense with that blue but also because he's left a little bit of the ground visible and Cezanne through that open ground through the visible graphite gives us access to his process and certainly points him towards subsequent painters in the 20th century were very actively making their process evident those eyes are looking directly at us and yet they're not entirely available I have to confess that I was really moved by the fact that this is somebody who he knows better than anybody in the world and he is still trying to see and understand who this person is through the vocabulary that he uniquely has the way he paints just around her shoulders you can see that he's applying a little bit of the warmer colored paint that separates her in space and gives that head a little more dynamism but that's a pure abstraction this is nothing that exists in nature before him is a reminder that the dynamic is not simply between what he sees and what is seen but also between the artist and the canvas for all of the presence of process and the evidence of how this painting was painted you're still captured by the unknowable and yet still fascinating stare of Madame Cezanne here it seems like it's not finished but indeed it is very finished it's as if he is beginning with nature but must finish with painting you