You can blame Paul Cézanne for most of the great upheaval that we call modernism in Western painting. A century ago, the great 1907 memorial exhibition organized to honor him after his death the previous year was a life-changing experience for just about every adventurous young artist who saw it. At least until the middle of the last century, he remained someone ambitious painters had to come to terms with, if they were to discover their own identities. To Henri Matisse, Cézanne was “the father of us all,” to Paul Klee, “the teacher par excellence,” and to Pablo Picasso, “a mother who protects her children.” (This is not the place to discuss Picasso’s habit of describing any male painter by whom he felt challenged in female terms.) Matisse and Picasso both owned, cherished, and learned from works by Cézanne. Matisse acquired his little painting, Three Bathers, in 1899, when he was impoverished and unknown, as an essential aid to his own endeavors. When he decided to give the canvas to the Museum of the City of Paris at the Petit Palais, in 1936, he wrote that it had “sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.”

As anyone familiar with Cézanne’s history knows, his own path was a difficult one, a laborious, single-minded trek from the super-heated, emotionally overwrought works of his youth to the patiently constructed meditations on perception of his mature years. Who sustained Cézanne morally during this anxious journey? Who was the protector and “teacher par excellence” for this fiercely individual painter? Who provided him with a source of “faith and perseverance” as he did for Matisse? Cézanne’s work (and his occasional statement) bear witness to his fascination with the Venetians and the Spanish, with Poussin and Delacroix, yet no single artist from the generation immediately preceding his own comes to mind. But no one, no matter how original, innovative, or downright pig-headed, makes art in a vacuum—certainly no one as deeply serious and aesthetically ambitious as Cézanne—particularly during formative periods. Matisse worked closely with his friend and colleague André Derain in forging Fauvism. Picasso worked closely with Georges Braque, when they pioneered Cubism “roped together like mountain climbers,” and collaborated with Julio González, when they transformed the entire concept of what sculpture could be with their welded constructions. Did Cézanne have a valued studio visitor, a trusted pair of eyes, someone with whom to exchange ideas and agonize over what was happening (or not happening) on canvas?

Cézanne and Pissarro remained friends for more than two decades.

Fortunately, he did, in Camille Pissarro. They met at art school in Paris in the early 1860s and remained friends for more than two decades, despite the notable differences in their backgrounds and ages. Pissarro, a French Jew born in the Caribbean, was nine years older than Cézanne, who was the son of a self-made banker, born and raised in deeply conventional Provence. (Of course, the connection is no more improbable than the close bond formed between the tall, irreducibly French Braque and the short, deeply Spanish Picasso.) What Cézanne and Pissarro had in common was their passion for the pursuit of art and their vehement opposition to the academic tradition and all its institutions; perhaps more important than this, they also seem to have shared a sense of being outsiders, of not belonging. During the ensuing years of their long, if intermittent, friendship, they sometimes lived far apart—Cézanne in the South, Pissarro in and around Paris—but they corresponded and remained aware of one another’s work. At other times, especially during the early 1870s, they were in close contact, living in the same region, even working side by side, drawing and painting one another’s portraits, exhibiting together, encouraging one another, learning from one another. Eventually, each of them moved into individual territory, each without entirely losing a subtle connection with the other’s work.

This fascinating, provocative relationship has now been examined in “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865–1885,” a brilliantly selected, thoughtfully argued exhibition illuminating the two painters’ long and nourishing friendship, organized at the Museum of Modern Art by Joachim Pissarro, the great-grandson of the painter.[1] It is a notably intimate exhibition, a close-up view of studio problems, very different in character than the last revealing dissection of the connections between two modern artists, “Matisse/Picasso,” seen two years ago at MOMA Queens. “Matisse/Picasso” dealt with another kind of relationship: that between two fully formed artists, each with a hard-won, individual approach. You were allowed to watch as each of these formidable masters looked over his shoulder at the one colleague who made him uneasy, the peer-cum-rival whom he was forced to take most seriously, no matter how widely their directions and conceptions diverged. Unlike “Cézanne & Pissarro,” “Matisse/Picasso” was not primarily about common aspirations or about artists learning from each other—although those were subtexts—but rather about keeping an eye on the competition. “Cézanne& Pissarro,” by contrast, is more like William Rubin’s impeccable survey “Picasso & Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” seen at MOMA in 1989. As with the earlier show, “Cézanne & Pissarro” tracks telling exchanges between two painters with similar ambitions and similar goals, at crucial moments in their development. “Cézanne& Pissarro” feels like being present at a series of sporadic but intense studio conversations, as two close friends struggle with new ideas and new discoveries of what a picture could be.

Pissarro, very generally, seems more assured and conventionally accomplished; Cézanne seemed more anxious, almost ferocious.

The show begins with a pair of self-portraits, both from around 1873, when Cézanne and Pissarro were working closely together, in Auvers and Pontoise respectively, outside of Paris. Cézanne was about thirty-four, Pissarro around forty-three, but each seems to have tried to make himself look as mature and serious as possible, each emphasizing the round dome of his balding head and his bushy beard; Pissarro’s impressive gray beard is positively patriarchal. Each portrays himself against a wall hung with his own work. (Later in the show, with the help of other paintings, you can identify the scribbled chain of vertical drawing and ochre expanse behind Pissarro as the wallpaper of his studio, and speculate about the subject of the works in the background.) Each painter shows himself with his head turned to the left; each records the sidelong stare with which he studied his own features. Both paintings share a subdued, warm, earthy palette. But where the Pissarro seems almost classical in its solidity, clarity, and broad, firm modeling, the Cézanne seems nervous, uncomfortable. The head, built out of loaded, almost angry jabs of the brush, tilts slightly, as though tipped by the pressure of the painter’s gaze; the thickset body, squeezed by the edges of the canvas, becomes an almost undifferentiated dark mass, pinned in place by the horizontal edge of the picture on the wall behind the artist. Pissarro’s self-portrait is harmonious, well executed, and rather restrained. Cézanne’s is angular, a little clumsy, and intense to the point of truculence. In a sense, the differences between the two self-portraits encapsulated everything that followed. Pissarro, very generally, seems more assured and conventionally accomplished; Cézanne seemed more anxious, almost ferocious.

Paul Cézanne, The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement”, 1866, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Camille Pissarro, Banks of the Marne in Winter, 1866, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.

But the exhibition also announces, right from the start, what unites the two painters. The wall of self-portraits is flanked by a pair of iconic early works: Pissarro’s Banks of the Marne in Winter (1866, Art Institute of Chicago) and Cézanne’s Artist’s Father (1866, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.). In the broadly handled, rock-solid Pissarro landscape, a swelling hillside confronts the viewer under an ominous, cloud-streaked gray sky, the frontality of its shape emphasized by the blank ends of a cluster of gray buildings on the right. A road flanked by slender trees angles in from the left, carving out the space of a wide field and forcing the hillside into the middle distance by sheer insistence. Opposite, Cézanne’s celebrated portrait of his father, nailed to a flowered armchair, seems a masterpiece of willfulness, with its not-quite-convincing layers of incident: Cézanne père’s projecting, disconnected knees, the newspaper he reads (a radical journal he would have avoided, in reality), his black cap, the high back of the chair, and the little Cézanne still life, like a brutalized Chardin, on the wall behind.

It’s easy to see why the painter of this ham-fisted, unforgettable picture and the author of that tough-minded landscape would have a lot to say to each other. For starters, both paintings are notable for the way force of feeling is embodied by the materiality of paint. And neither work has anything remotely to do with the academic ideals of the period.

At MOMA, the intimacy of the two men’s friendship is suggested by their images of one another. There are affectionate drawings of Pissarro by Cézanne, who rather shyly observed his friend from the back, in profile, or at a distance, but always accounted unmistakably for the older painter’s big beard, his broad-brimmed painting hat, and his dignified introspection. Pissarro, in turn, captures Cézanne’s chunkiness and stiffness—he always looks as if he has too much clothing on—qualities that he emphasized in an 1874 portrait (Collection Laurence Graff) in which the younger man, muffled in an overcoat and scarf, sports the curious hat (like something a farmer would don in cold weather) that he also wears in a well-known drawing by Pissarro. Sympathetic as the portrait is, it is almost more interesting for its background, a wall of revealing images—rather like the background of Edouard Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola—that locates the subject aesthetically and politically.

A caricature of Courbet seems to salute the oblivious Cézanne, while behind him, a political cartoon seems to have been transformed into the homage of France itself; also prominent is one of Pissarro’s paintings of Pontoise, the angled roof of a village building an echo of Cézanne’s odd hat, its façade and foreground turned into a surrogate head. In the MOMA installation, the works grouped with this portrait were emblematic of the exhibition’s scrupulous anatomizing of the complex connections between the two artists. The Pissarro streetscape—Route de Gisors: The House of Père Galien (1873, private collection)—was installed nearby, along with Cézanne’s well-known Still Life with a Soup Tureen (1874, Musée d’Orsay), a thickly painted basket of apples and a patterned covered dish on a red paisley cloth, in which Route de Gisors also appears in the background. Pissarro once owned the still life.

Cézanne was clearly determined to learn what he could from Pissarro.

As you move through the show, the pairings of canvases with similar subjects and, occasionally, of the same subject, made at just about the same time, create a sense of eavesdropping on a couple of deeply engaged artists as they debated possibilities. (Sometimes, however, the desire to include works with similar subjects and related compositional strategies warps strict chronological comparisons, but it doesn’t appear to matter.) The dynamic of the friendship is hinted at by inclusion of an 1871 Pissarro landscape that Cézanne admired, set beside the younger painter’s slightly reduced copy. Cézanne was clearly determined to learn what he could from Pissarro, but he was unable to subject his stubborn individuality to anyone else’s approach. Cézanne remained faithful to his friend’s composition and generally retained Pissarro’s autumnal palette, but everything in the copy seems crisper, more angular, more spatially articulate. A wall of still lifes allows you to compare the two painters’ efforts to integrate setting—read “wallpaper patterns”—and objects. And isn’t that the same salt glaze pot, holding Pissarro’s bunch of peonies, that Cézanne employed in his oddly compressed composition of two vases of flowers?

The two painters came together most closely, perhaps, in the mid-1870s, when both used the palette knife extensively and both seemed equally engaged by investigating how the geometry of man-made elements in the landscape—roofs, walls, roads, and bridges—could be used to set up unifying rhythms that stiffened a composition. In his paintings of this period, Pissarro seems to explore the possibilities implicit in the tense, powerful landscape of the banks of the Marne that began the exhibition. The results are among Pissarro’s strongest works. It’s a tribute to Pissarro’s achievement that he looks as good as he does in the 1870s, since the installation includes some of Cézanne’s best known, most potent paintings, such as the Courtauld’s economical canvas of a pond near Pontoise, with its boomerang tree trunk, and the Musée d’Orsay’s magical Bridge at Maincy, near Melun (1879–80), with its astonishing fugal structure of reflected arches, rigid horizontal beams, and vertical tree trunks. Pissarro’s sturdy Small Bridge, Pontoise (1875, Stadische Kunsthalle Mannheim)—an intense black shadow of the bridge’s arch, dead center, reflections rendered as aggressive swipes of paint, and leaning tree trunks compressing the space—more than holds its own beside the d’Orsay picture.

Paul Cézanne, House of the Hanged Man, Auvers-sur-Oise, 1873, Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.
Camille Pissarro, The Conversation, Chemin de Chou, Pontoise, 1874, Oil on canvas, private collection.

Yet the differences between the two painters are unignorable, even during the years when they were in closest contact, as more than one comparison in the exhibition reminds us. Perhaps the most dramatic opposition is that between Cézanne’s deservedly famous House of the Hanged Man, Auvers-sur-Oise (1873, Musée d’Orsay) and a fine but less known Pissarro, The Conversation, Chemin de Chou, Pontoise (1874, private collection). Both canvases share a quadripartite structure of opposing masses of buildings and trees on either side of a centralized path, with a sloping wall in the left foreground, yet their emotional temperatures are completely unrelated. Pissarro presents us with a cool equivalent of the moist air and subtle light of the region, orchestrated in terms of fresh greens, creamy off-whites, and grays. Everything ripples gently under his fluent touches of the brush. In the center, cradled by the pale, curving road, a couple stand and chat, anchoring the picture and providing its anecdotal justification. Cézanne saturates Auvers with the bleached ochres of Provence, but in contrast to Pissarro’s verdant country idyll, the mood of his austere picture is autumnal, chilly; branches are bare and grayed browns overwhelm vestiges of green. The buildings on both sides of the composition plunge into a tight V, their meeting thwarted by the broken horizontals of a path and a fence, but there’s enough pressure to provoke an explosion of branches from a “trapped” tree. The tightly compressed central section of the House of the Hanged Man is, in fact, so densely packed and so charged that it seems to transcend its nominal subject matter to become, perhaps, a sexual surrogate, a weirdly displaced substitute for the triangle of belly and thighs of one of those nude females who reportedly made Cézanne so uneasy.

Ultimately, the cumulative effect of the works selected for the show is to emphasize the differences, rather than the similarities, between the two painters. Pissarro, even at his most rigorous, always seems more ingratiating and anecdotal than Cézanne. Figures and carts animate the roads of his townscapes; atmospheric qualities of light soften the edges of his buildings and landscape forms. In one telling—and chronologically weighted—pairing, Cézanne’s masterly Turn in the Road (1881, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), with its implacable, flattened arc of roadway and its tipped walls, is set beside a Pissarro of a similar curved road, painted in Pontoise in 1875. As in the Cézanne, the piled-up geometric solids of the village create a tense middle ground in Pissarro’s densely constructed picture and, as in the Cézanne, the road bends to the right, but Pissarro rationalizes its steep arc as a rising slope and includes an economically painted peasant girl to add a note of charm and domesticity.

Even more revealing is the pairing of two views of the garden at Maubuisson, Pontoise, both painted in 1877. (The Pissarro is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, the Cézanne in that of Mr. and Mrs. Jay Pack, Dallas.) The two paintings encapsulate everything the two artists learned from one another and everything that separated them. Both Pissarro and Cézanne chose more or less the same viewpoint, looking through a plantation of widely spaced, flowering fruit trees, backed by a cluster of houses on a hill beyond the garden wall. Both artists were attentive to the specifics of their motif. In both pictures, we recognize the distinctively curving branches of a tree on the right and the sequence of roofs mounting the hill.

In his version of the theme, Pissarro announces his kinship with Cézanne by organizing his painting around the powerful vertical axis of a centralized tree, adjusting the horizontals of rooflines, branches, and the groundplane into elegant right-angle oppositions. But he ultimately suppresses the planes of buildings and wall, just as he downplays the linear architecture of trees and trunks, in order to emphasize the haze of young leaves and blossom, dissolving the scene into an atmospheric tapestry of stabbing brushmarks. Cézanne, by contrast, minimizes the screen of foliage to concentrate on the complex geometry of the man-made elements of the scene. Yet his picture, like Pissarro’s, is full of air. Paradoxically, the background is far more solid than the grove of fruit trees in front of the wall, which threaten to become a pulsing fabric of repetitive, rhythmic touches, like a more substantial, more disjunctive version of Pissarro’s haze.

The differences between the two views of the Maubuisson garden could serve, of course, as prefigurations of the divergent paths Pissarro and Cézanne would follow. Pissarro became increasingly interested in evoking atmosphere and light, with attention to specific details of place. His stroke became more broken and regular, his palette even more rooted in the colors of nature. Cézanne, quite the opposite, strove to reconstruct his sense of the innate order of things in terms of detached, laboriously placed patches of color that began to take on a life almost independent of the “sensation” that had provoked them. Where Pissarro’s paintings generally became softer and more diffuse (apart from his flirtation with pointillism, which is outside the boundaries of the MOMA survey), Cézanne’s became increasingly rigorous and solidly constructed. Where Pissarro remained attuned to subtle nuances of the natural world, Cézanne, voluntarily or not, was more and more involved with the realities of paint on canvas.

The two friends saw little of each other after the 1880s, yet they were still on one another’s minds—the increasing disparity in their approaches notwithstanding. Letters quoted in the excellent accompanying catalogue confirm the point, but the most vivid evidence is to be found in the last room of MOMA’s installation. Two small Pissarros depicting houses and trees at first seem typical of the painter in the early 1880s, with their rhythmic strokes and subtle palette, but the elegant geometry of the compositions could be read as an homage to Cézanne. Similarly, the exhibition suggests that even as a mature artist in his forties, Cézanne still looked to Pissarro for guidance and, perhaps, reassurance (although by the early 1880s, he was exploring pictorial ideas totally unlike those of his old friend). The works Cézanne found provocative at that time were not, however, Pissarro’s current efforts, but rather his monumentally constructed landscapes of the 1860s, which is to say, paintings of the type that had started the conversation between the two rebellious, much younger artists in the first place.

The provocative groupings of Cézannes from the early 1880s and Pissarros from the late 1860s with which the exhibition ends make clear how much the younger man owed his older friend, in ways that make the undeniable differences in the potency and originality of their work irrelevant. Was it the example of Pissarro’s taut, firmly structured landscapes of the 1860s that made Cézanne abandon the extravagant allegories, orgies, and biblical scenes that first preoccupied him? Was it Pissarro who convinced his younger friend that expression could reside in the “bones” of painting rather than in overtly dramatic subject matter? “Cézanne& Pissarro” make the thesis plausible. That it was Cézanne who fully realized the implications of his older colleague’s work takes nothing away from Pissarro’s achievement. If anything, it is simply evidence of how crucial this remarkable friendship was to both artists and to the evolution of modern painting itself.

  1. “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865–1885” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on June 26 and remains on view through September 12, 2005. A catalogue of the exhibition, by Joachim Pissarro, has been published by the museum (256 pages, $60).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 1, on page 62
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