Paul Cézanne’s name is as inextricably linked to apples as Edgar Degas’ is to ballet dancers. (See “The Apples of Cézanne,” Meyer Schapiro’s brilliant discussion of the possible associations the motif had for the painter, beginning in his teenage years.) But just as Degas explored many subjects besides the teenage girls who performed at the Paris Opéra, Cézanne frequently turned his attention away from still life to concentrate on portraits of family members (especially his wife), card players, bathers, the grounds of the family home in Aix, the Provençal landscape, and more. Considering Cézanne’s landscape motifs, of course, immediately calls up images of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the pale, pyramidal mountain about nine miles outside of Aix that he found so compelling that he painted it about sixty times and, it could be argued, often evoked its luminous form in the rucked-up cloths of his still lifes. Yet, once again, we have to think more comprehensively. No matter how deeply Cézanne was engaged by Montagne Sainte-Victoire, it was not his only landscape motif.
Now, “Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings,” a small, illuminating exhibition that opened at the Princeton University Art Museum just before everything closed, focuses for the first time on a particular but generally overlooked aspect of the revolutionary painter’s approach to landscape—what is described as “his profound interest in rocks and geological formations, and his use of such structures to shape the compositions of his paintings.” Organized by John Elderfield, the chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and from 2015 to 2019 the first distinguished curator and lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum, the show assembles fourteen canvases and four watercolors from an impressive roster of public and private collections. The story is told by a combination of celebrated signature paintings and less-known surprises, in a selection limited enough that we can give each work the intense attention it demands. We can study freshly the Museum of Modern Art’s iconic Pines and Rocks (1895–1900), with its parade of trees against a dappled sky, and find relationships between the branches above and rocks below that we never noticed before; further on, we can meet, probably for the first time, the superheated orange rock wall and scattered blue-gray boulders in Trees and Rocks (1900–04), from the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee. We can acknowledge as an old friend moma’s watercolor Rocks near the Caves above Château Noir (1895–1900), its progression of minimally indicated horizontal blocks featured in all courses on modernist art, and also welcome the opportunity to see its less familiar counterpart, Trees and Rocks (1895–1900), a tapestry of green, rose, yellow, and mauve touches overlaid with nervous drawing, normally sequestered in a private collection in Paris.
The justification for the exhibition—apart from the sheer pleasure and the scholarly benefits of uniting dispersed but related works—is provided by the catalogue’s epigraph, attributed to Cézanne by a Provençal friend: “In order to paint a landscape well,” the artist is reported to have said in 1897, “I first need to discover its geological foundations.” The source of the quote, we learn, was a younger companion of Cézanne’s from Aix, Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a precociously accomplished geologist (among other scientific achievements) who in the mid-1860s drew instructive diagrams of stratification and mountain formation in a notebook belonging to Cézanne; reproductions of the relevant pages are on display.
“In order to paint a landscape well, I first need to discover its geological foundations.”
In the book accompanying the show, the independent scholar Faya Causey examines Cézanne’s early relationship with Marion and their fellow Aixois collégiens, Émile Zola and Jean-Baptistin Baille. Causey itemizes the young men’s studies, their travels, and what they did together, emphasizing their knowledge of the geography and geology of the region around their hometown. She notes, too, their embrace of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, translated into French in 1862, while also enumerating their (considerable) future accomplishments. Zola’s literary and political achievements are well known; Marion became a celebrated zoologist, paleo-botanist, marine biologist, and illustrator; Baille was an astronomer, a professor of optics and acoustics, and the author of popular books on science. Marion, described by Cézanne as a “géologue et peintre,” frequently accompanied his friend on treks through the countryside near Aix and painted with him en plein air. Causey presents convincing evidence that Cézanne, a notably bright young man surrounded by notably bright friends, was, like them, deeply interested in natural science, including geology. “The Rock and Quarry Paintings” can be read as testimony that his appreciation for the visible traces of the processes that shaped the earth—an awareness informed by his early friendship with Marion and their time together in the Provençal countryside—persisted for the rest of his working life.
The information is absorbing and brings Cézanne to life, but it would be of merely anecdotal interest if the paintings brought together to bolster the contention weren’t so compelling. As the exhibition’s title announces, they all include rocks: huge boulders, loose chunks fallen from an eroding slope, massive cliffs, the walls of an abandoned quarry. Sometimes trees and occasionally water penetrate and interrupt the rock formations. Painted en plein air, directly from the motif, between about 1866 and about 1906, the works are responses to four sites: the Forest of Fontainebleau, near Paris; and in Provence, the countryside surrounding the coastal village of L’Estaque, just outside of Marseille; along with the hilly terrain surrounding the unfinished nineteenth-century Château Noir; and the nearby Bibémus quarry, close to Aix. The earliest exhibited work, Rocks at the Shore, L’Estaque (ca. 1866, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), is thought to have been painted in Marion’s company, given an extant photograph of a now-lost work by the géologue-peintre from a very similar viewpoint. Cézanne’s vision of a reddish and pale-gray coastline, barely penetrated by stubby fingers of blue-green sea, is entirely his own, painted in what he called his “ballsy manner” as fiercely as any of the well-known early portraits of his Uncle Dominique, made at about the same time. The density of paint in every element of the picture becomes a potent equivalent for the physicality of the subject matter in a fairly conventional image.
Cézanne’s later sojourns in L’Estaque, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, are documented by the dynamically compressed view of the bay from above the town, L’Estaque (1879–83, Museum of Modern Art), with its vertical rock face and towering trees bracketing a swath of distant, oddly solid treetops, tile roofs reduced to angled planes, and a punctuating steeple that somehow alters the scale of the entire picture. Because of their uniformly tawny color and uniformly rhythmic strokes, a distant headland that interrupts sea and sky fuses with the vast stony triangle on the right side of the canvas, by way of an intermediary rock formation, to embrace the near-abstracted town below, further destabilizing the space. Viaduct at L’Estaque (ca. 1882, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College) confronts us with a seemingly impenetrable gorge, looming above the horizontal of the viaduct walls. A modest building and a clump of trees are nearly overwhelmed by the repetitive pats of color, at once evocative of the steep, broken, rocky slopes of the region and self-sufficient as evidence of the act of putting paint on a surface.
That tension between the illusion of bulk and solidity and the fact of paint on a flat plane is, of course, a constant in Cézanne’s work. It is particularly evident in “The Rock and Quarry Paintings” because of the difference between the literal mass of the subject matter and the near-disembodied means with which it has been suggested. Our perceptions of both qualities struggle for dominance. Take, for example, moma’s well-known Pines and Rocks and two related works from Zürich and the Met, all thought to have been painted in the Forest of Fontainebleau during Cézanne’s second campaign of working there. (An earlier series, not seen in Princeton, was executed when he lived and worked in Melun, near the northeastern edge of the forest, in 1879 and 1880.) Though even assiduous seekers have failed to identify a particular location within the forest that can be definitively associated with the exhibited works, the records of Cézanne’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard, suggest that they were made in Fontainebleau. The cool tonalities of the Zürich and Met pictures support the idea by conjuring up the moist, diffuse light of the north, rather than the blazing sunlight of the south evoked by paintings made in Provence about the same time.
The Fontainebleau images are unyielding. Rocks in the Forest (1895–1900, Kunsthaus Zürich) and Rocks at Fontainebleau (1895–1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art) hold the viewer at bay with impenetrable friezes of boulders. The Zürich picture, divided into foreground path, wall of rocks, and trees against sky, allows us to move a little way into the painting before we are stopped, but the Met’s picture, half massive stones, half sky and treetops, offers no foothold. Cézanne’s repetitive, even-handed brushstrokes and stabs are virtually identical, whether provoked by rock, earth, sky, or foliage, with linear accents suggesting branches and slender trees. The loosely suggested shapes of stones and patches of leaves and sky conjured up by these touches are all about the same size, as well, so that the paintings read, on one level, as all-over, rhythmically inflected expanses, as insistent as the continuo of a Baroque concerto. Next stop, the overlapping planes of Analytic Cubism. We are intensely aware of the role of the artist’s hand in depositing a continuous fabric of pigment on a flat surface, yet the subtle shifts in tonality and hue associated with each element contradict the sense of continuity, making us just as intensely aware of the brutality of the accumulated boulders and the delicacy of the play of treetops against pale sky.
If there are questions about the origins of the paintings believed to have been made in Fontainebleau, there’s no doubt about where the exhibition’s works from the last years of Cézanne’s life were painted. Many of the specific sites where he worked on the grounds of the Château Noir and within the abandoned Bibémus quarry have been identified and documented, often by the perceptive, indefatigable specialist in Impressionist painting John Rewald. Here the connection between Cézanne’s youthful interest in geology and his friendship with Marion is clear, since some of the Château Noir canvases were made near caves associated with Marion’s excavations and paleontological discoveries, places that the four collégiens had probably explored together on their hikes through the countryside. The light-struck palette of the exhibition’s Bibémus paintings—warm ochres, saturated blues, and acid greens set off by darker notes—locate us in Provence as surely as the umbrella pine soaring above the palisade of reddish rock in Bibémus Quarry (1895–1900, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri) or the unmistakable triangle of Cézanne’s favorite mountain rising beyond the confrontational quarry walls in Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibémus (1895–1900, Baltimore Museum of Art). Apart from the (rather atypical) distant view of the mountain, the space has been squeezed out of the Bibémus paintings. The cut walls of the quarry are made all but congruent with the surface of the support. We are given no place to stand but, instead, are made to acknowledge the relationship between the shape of the support and the geometry of the manmade site. In the Baltimore painting, we are at eye level with the tops of the trees in front of a warm sienna wall of the quarry that stretches across the lower two-thirds of the canvas, as if we were hovering in the excavated space.
The compression is even more extreme in the astonishing Rocks and Branches at Bibémus (1900–04, Petit Palais, Paris) where a tracery of enormous pine branches fills half the picture against an expanse of red-brown rock. The two elements become warring planes against the rectangle of the canvas, despite the faint suggestion of an irregular ground plane. We intuit the differences between foliage and rock, but the space before us seems both unenterable and inescapable. There’s no visible way in and not even a sliver of sky. We’re told that Cézanne liked the isolation of working in the confines of the quarry, with its man-made boundaries. That sense of containment informs all of the Bibémus paintings on view.
Cézanne has once again invented a potent equivalent for his “sensation.”
Cézanne seems to have found the hilly landscape around the Château Noir as stimulating as Bibémus, to judge by the exhibition’s loose, rhythmically stroked canvases and watercolors, all painted on the grounds or on the steep, rocky slope above the house. Forest Interior (ca. 1898–1900, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) positions us on the slope before a rocky wall suggested with staccato diagonal strokes. We gaze upwards at a quilt of short strokes that evoke dense forest and a hint of sky. A row of parallel, fairly evenly spaced tree trunks disciplines the forest zone, while casually disposed horizontal strokes triggered by branches and fissures in the rock weave the deceptively casual composition together. Other works painted on the grounds of the Château Noir take us to the same precarious site. In the most disorienting, Rocks above Château Noir (1900–04, Musée d’Orsay), a pile of enormous boulders pushes us out of the picture, while a thicket of trees rises above. Sketchy vertical strokes imposed on the rocks suggest ghostly tree trunks, branches, and fissures, at the same time that they create staccato rhythms that both enliven the composition and throw us off balance. The most striking of the Château Noir canvases may be Trees and Rocks (1900–04, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee), with its orange-red soil, strewn with slate blue rocks, beneath glimpses of cerulean sky and trees hinted at by interwoven greens and blues. Like almost all of Cézanne’s late works, Trees and Rocks is constructed with regular patches of finely tuned color kept parallel to the surface of the canvas, so dominant that they threaten to become a near-abstract carpet of paint, almost independent of reference. But just as we begin to focus on the way pigment has been applied, to the exclusion of anything else, the pared-down but powerfully specific image reasserts itself and we are back in the south of France, squinting against the blinding light and hearing the buzz of the cicadas.
Cézanne has once again invented a potent equivalent for his “sensation.” Are we aware of his understanding of the “geological foundations” that he claimed was essential to his painting a landscape successfully? Perhaps. For instruction, we can refer to the book accompanying the exhibition. Essays by Elderfield, Causey, and the art historian Anna Swinbourne, and entries by the Princeton doctoral candidates Sara Green, Annemarie Iker, and Ariel Kline, tell us just about anything we’ve ever wanted to know about Cézanne and geology, among other things. Many relevant works not seen in Princeton are reproduced, along with Marion’s informative diagrams. We discover that there are about twenty-five works that could be classified as “rock and quarry,” fewer than half the number of Montagne Sainte-Victoire paintings but only four fewer than the tally of portraits of Mme. Cézanne. Draw your own conclusions about where his interest lay.
1 “Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings” opened at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey, on March 7 and remains on view through June 14, 2020. A slightly modified version of the exhibition will next travel to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from July 12 through October 18, 2020. Owing to the closure of museums due to the COVID-19 outbreak, exhibition dates and traveling schedules may change.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 42
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