“With an apple, I want to astonish Paris”–so Cézanne proclaimed on the eve of his first solo exhibition, which Ambroise Vollard mounted in 1895 (quoted in Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 383). In part a pun on the mythical judgment of Paris, in which the Trojan prince awards a golden apple to the goddess Aphrodite in exchange for the famously exquisite Helen, Cézanne’s statement is also a testament to the critical place that still-life occupied in his oeuvre–and in particular, to the special seriousness that he reserved for the humble apple, carefully selected to serve him as an instrument for the highest achievement. By all accounts, Cézanne was successful in his mission. Shortly after the opening of the Vollard show, the influential critic Thadée Natanson saluted the reclusive (and long-neglected) artist from Aix as the “painter of apples,” and today, the apples of Cézanne have come to function as a veritable iconographic moniker for the artist, comparable to Degas’s dancers and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.
“Not only in the importance of still-life in general for Cézanne’s art, but also in his persistent choice of apples, we sense a personal trait,” Meyer Schapiro has explained. “If he achieved a momentary calm through these carefully considered, slowly ripened paintings, it was not in order to prepare for a higher effort. These are major works, often of the same complexity and grandeur as his most impressive landscapes and figure compositions” (“The Apples of Cézanne,” Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, New York, 1978, p. 15).
In Pommes sur un linge, Cézanne has created a painting of exceptional inventiveness from the very simplest of means. In the center of the composition, a pyramid of five apples is positioned on a rumpled white tablecloth, its baroque folds creating a nest for the fruit; the precariously balanced apple atop the pile gives the impression that it might roll forward at any moment into the viewer’s space. In contrast, the single apple at the left is the very epitome of stillness and stability, its self-contained, spherical form repeated in the round white plate. There is no sense here of the accidents of nature; instead, the artist’s role in the construction of the still-life is laid bare. “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 using coins of one or two sous for the purpose,” recalled the painter Louis Le Bail, who once had occasion to watch 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).
As a vehicle for such intensive and prolonged experimentation, apples offered Cézanne several benefits. They do not spoil quickly, and their compact spherical shape is primal and complete. In comparison with other fruit, moreover, they are exceptionally varied in color, running the gamut from a radiant blush to deep ruby red, from golden yellow to luxuriant grassy green. In Pommes sur un linge, each apple is indeed a singular piece of painting, a unique object, with its own nuances of rich color and transitions of light and shade; each is tilted in its own way, the dark spots of the stem ends like the poles of rotating orbs. Presented first and foremost as objects of formal contemplation, the six apples have become abstract, absolute in themselves; they are no longer meant to be touched, smelled, or tasted. “Of an apple by an ordinary artist, people say, ‘I feel like eating it,’” the painter Paul Sérusier explained. “Of an apple by Cézanne they say, ‘How beautiful!’ You would not peel his apple; you would like to copy it” (quoted in Hidden Treasures Revealed, exh. cat., State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 1995, p. 196).
The apples in Pommes sur un linge are set in a shallow interior space, the tabletop tipped slightly toward the viewer in Cézanne’s characteristic way. At the left of the composition, the rear ground is formed from a fragment of a jewel-toned floral curtain, worked with a virtuoso lightness of touch that contrasts with the more resolved forms of the like-colored fruits; at the top right, Cézanne has left a portion of the primed canvas exposed, which merges with the white tablecloth to heighten the sense of spatial compression. Contrary to what John Rewald suggested some two decades ago, the painting shows no signs of having been cut down from a larger composition or re-touched after it left Cézanne’s studio (op. cit., 1996, p. 377). Walter Feilchenfeldt, Jayne Warman, and David Nash, the authors of the current, authoritative catalogue raisonné, have conclusively established that the canvas is exactly as Cézanne intended it, with different sections worked to varying degrees of completion (op. cit., 2015, no. 804).
“The unfinished state of the curtain serves as an artistic device, the white empty spaces echoing the white of the napkin,” Birgit Schwarz has stated about a closely related painting in The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Rewald, no. 804). “As this still-life shows, a work could attain a state that, though not finished in the strict sense, was balanced within itself, making further elaboration seem inadvisable” (Cézanne: Finished-Unfinished, exh. cat., Kunstforum, Vienna, 2000, p. 224).
Cézanne himself made similar statements about the notion of completeness over the course of his career. “I have to work constantly,” he lamented to his mother in the mid-1870s, “[but] not in order to arrive at finish, which attracts the admiration of imbeciles. This thing, which is so much admired, is only the feat of an artisan’s skill and renders every resulting work inartistic and common. I must strive to complete only for the satisfaction of being truer and more artistic” (quoted in ibid., p. 35). The more open and abstract compositions in Cézanne’s oeuvre indeed seem to have held a special fascination for his fellow artists. “There are exquisite things, still-lifes of irreproachable accomplishment,” Pissarro wrote about Cézanne’s solo show at the Galerie Vollard in 1895, “and others much worked but left in a suspended state that are still more beautiful” (quoted in ibid., p. 230).
The dynamic, carefully calibrated equilibrium of Pommes sur un linge stands in stark contrast to the unrelenting emotional turbulence that subsumed Cézanne’s personal life during the mid-1880s, when he painted this exceptional canvas. In the spring of 1885, he had a brief, disastrous affair with an unidentified woman in Aix, which drew to a painful end by August. “For me, there is complete isolation,” Cézanne lamented to his childhood friend and confidant Zola. “The brothel in town, or something like that, but nothing more” (quoted in J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1976, p. 221).
The following year brought further upheavals. In April 1886, Zola sent Cézanne a copy of his new novel L’Oeuvre, whose tragic protagonist Claude Lantier was a failed artistic genius, tormented by ideas that he was incapable of realizing on canvas. Zola’s portrait of the deluded artist struck Cézanne as an intensely personal attack and brought to an abrupt end the two men’s friendship, which had begun more than three decades earlier when the future novelist brought his slightly older classmate a basket of apples to thank him for providing protection from schoolyard bullies. Just weeks after the break with Zola, Cézanne unexpectedly married his long-time companion Hortense Fiquet, after assiduously keeping her existence–and that of their fourteen-year-old son Paul–a secret from his domineering father, fearing disapproval and disinheritance. The year’s final upheaval came in October, when Cézanne’s father took ill and died. In a state of agitation and anguish, suffering from severe headaches, Cézanne bemoaned to the collector Victor Chocquet that he envied his serenity: “Fate has not endowed me with an equal stability, that is the only regret I have about the things of this earth” (quoted in ibid., p. 225).
In the midst of such turmoil, what a respite for Cézanne, with utter autonomy and painstaking deliberation, to sublimate his passions into the painting of apples–firm, centered, congenial organic objects of a commonplace yet subtly nuanced beauty. “Cézanne’s apples are often the objects of a caressing vision. He loves their finely asymmetrical roundness and the delicacy of their rich local color which he sometimes evokes through an exquisite rendering rarely found in his painting of nude flesh,” Schapiro has concluded. “In paintings of apples he was able to express through their more varied colors and groupings a wider range of moods, from the gravely contemplative to the sensual and ecstatic. In this carefully arranged society of perfectly submissive things 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” (M. Schapiro, op. cit., 1978, pp. 27-28 and 30-31).
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The first owner of Pommes sur un linge was the dealer Vollard, who possessed an effective monopoly on the artist’s market from 1894 onward. In 1928, the canvas entered the collection of Joseph Winterbotham, Jr., whose father (although not a collector himself) had made a generous gift to the Art Institute of Chicago seven years earlier, which enabled the institution to purchase its very first modern European paintings. After the elder Winterbotham’s death in 1925, Joseph Winterbotham, Jr., who had already begun to assemble his own worthy and discerning collection of European and Asian art, augmented the family’s gift to the Art Institute and also assumed an important role on the purchasing committee that administered the fund. In 1953, he donated Pommes sur un linge to the Art Institute, where it hung for more than three decades; in 1978, a former employee stole the painting and held it for ransom, but he was swiftly apprehended and the canvas returned to the museum unharmed.
Paul Cézanne, Boîte à lait et pommes, 1879-1880. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au plat de cerises, 1885-1887. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Paul Cézanne, Bouteilles et pêches, circa 1890. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Paul Cézanne, Grosses pommes, 1891-1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Un coin de table, circa 1895. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
Paul Cézanne, Nature morte, 1895-1898. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.