“Toiles des luttes” or “canvases of struggle”—that is what Georges Seurat called his large paintings destined to be absolute masterpieces of “Scientific Impressionism.” For the older French painter Paul Cézanne, each canvas was a “toile de lutte-” not just the big ones. The few places in his letters in which he discusses his method, painting for him was fraught with indecision, doubt, and—well—struggle, and he was supremely aware that he rarely succeeded in wrestling a painting to any state of successful completion.
One particularly relevant letter, written to the Belgian art critic Octave Maus on November 29 of 1889, makes his ambivalence to—and fear of failure in—his own paintings particularly clear: “I must tell you that the numerous studies [by which Cézanne means paintings] to which I have devoted myself produced only negative results, and, dreading criticism that is only too justified, I had resolved to work in silence, until the day when I could feel capable of defending theoretically the results of my endeavors.” Cézanne was 50 years old when he wrote those sentences.
Every painting by Cézanne—no matter its mode or “subject”—was at war with itself—each stroke or group of adjacent strokes was placed in a particular spot on the canvas like a move in a chess match. For Cézanne, the adversary was the art of painting—or rather more precisely the individual painting on which he worked. Witness accounts of his painting habits—rare and unreliable as they are—tell us that he took long periods of time between strokes, much like grand masters in chess spend concentrated periods analyzing the last moves made by their adversary and deliberating the best counter move….For chess players, it is the number of moves and responses in advance of the particular move that determines the quality of the player—the higher the number, the better the player. “If s(he) does this, I will do that, and on and on until the match is won or lost.
It is odd to think that a painting can be “won” or “lost,” but, for Cézanne, the struggle was on-going, and only in the final decade of his life did his successes outnumber his “incompletions.” This situation resulted in many paintings that seem to contemporary viewers to be “unfinished”—as if the last move resulted in a stalemate. And, perhaps in mute acknowledgement of this idea, Cézanne signed very few of his paintings and kept many of them for decades. No one, to my knowledge, has argued that he worked again on canvases abandoned years ago, largely because he probably didn’t. Indeed, the intensity of his working method made it difficult for him to refight old battles on the same field.
The lucky institution or individual who eventually owns Boullloire et fruits (I will persist with the French) will be able to “watch,” or, perhaps better, decode Cézanne painting posthumously by going carefully over the painting and questioning certain marks or areas of spatial and compositional problems or visual inconsistencies. Why, for example, did he suppress what was clearly to have been a lemon or apple in the lower right corner of the table, but leaves enough visual clues so that any viewer knows that, at one time, he wanted the fruit? And, in another area, why did the lovingly paint the wooden handle of the pewter kettle without giving us any idea how it is attached—either at the top or the bottom—to the kettle itself?
And, while we are at it, what of the kettle? Like many masters of still-life painting, Cézanne used a small number of “props” to compose the still-life itself before painting it. Many of these appear over and over in his oeuvre, probably not because he liked them, but because he knew them and could place them in arrangements with a certainty based on knowledge. Yet, in all of his still-life paintings, there is only one other with a “bouilloire,” and it was painted in a completely different manner in 1867.
The Musée d’Orsay's, Nature morte avec bouilloire, remained with Cézanne until the mid-1890s, a few years after the present work was painted. Did he pull it out of a pile of canvases, reminding himself of the pewter kettle that he had so lovingly painted perhaps as much as 20 years before the present work was begun? Or, more likely, was the same kettle available as he sought to set up the still-life—a much more complex one than the 1867 canvas—that he sought to tackle sometime in the late 1880s, when he wrote the doubt-filled passage quoted above.
The kettles are so similar that surely they are one and the same. But can we be sure? Cézanne painted the kettle in the earlier still-life with an almost dogged insistence on its physical character. The pewter is represented with gray paint into which he adds white and black to create a tonal range. The lid and its shiny metal top is carefully delineated as it’s the wooden handle (metal would be too hot to handle when the water came to a boil).
By contrast the body of kettle in the present work is similarly composed of two seamed pewter parts, with a top so generically painted that we cannot compare it to the earlier one. So too the wooden handle, which, in the present work, is the color of pewter near the top and of wood near its base. There is no pewter connector to the top of the kettle as there is in the carefully painted earlier kettle. And what of color? While the earlier kettle is painted with what we take to be an accurate pewter-like gray, the later kettle is painted with strokes and touches of pink, lavender, pale blue, turquoise, white, ivory, dark gray, blue, brown, and red. Can it be “pewter?”
The same can be said of the voluminous painted folds of the “white” table cloth carefully arranged almost as a fabric mountain range of peaks and folded valleys in virtually every color in the palette. It is worth examining this “monochrome” cloth by counting the colors that “represent” it in the present work. Just like the kettle, it is a chromatic symphony of green, yellow, red, blue, turquoise, lavender, orange, mauve, ivory, and on and on and on. With our chess game metaphor in the front of our mind, it is easy to image Cézanne adding a touch of Granny-Apple-Green to an apple and, for his next chromatic move, making sure that reds—pale or full-throated—played chromatic games with it. One touch leads to the next and the next and then to the chromatic “correction” that surprised even the artist.
Without knowing anything about Cézanne’s life, we can experience the full drama of creation simply by looking carefully—and for prolonged periods in different light conditions—at the painting. And the “dance of color” tells us nothing about the comparable, but different dance of forms that make up a composition. Cézanne was a master of still-life painting, and the range of compositional strategies he used is unprecedented in the western still-life tradition.
Generations of art history students seated in undergraduate courses are taught about the range of visual imbalances we can see in Cézanne still-life paintings. Apples are arrested as they seem to run off the table or roll down the slanted floor, and table tops tilt and almost careen vertiginously as if in a kind of formal roller derby that is anything but “still.” If, in French, “nature” is “dead” in this mode of painting, in English life is “stilled.” Cézanne does not need to add flowers or plants to create “life” in his “nature mort”—indeed the sense of movement and even restlessness is everywhere. And, by extension, his “life” is really never “still” except that his paintings themselves no longer move. The possibility of movement is in virtually every Cézanne “still-life.”
Bouilloire et fruits is one of a type of still-life compositions in which there is only one stabilizing vertical element—the kettle—around which the various groupings of 1, 3, 4, and 5 fruits are set within valleys of “white” drapery. These dispersed compositions are countered in his production by another type of still-life in which the fruits are grouped in a circular bowl, dish, or basket, around which a few dispersed elements are arranged so that they escape the order of the circle. In painting the carefully piled apples or fruits, Cézanne was as interested in representing the spaces among the spherical orbs as the solid fruits themselves, and, when we look for the “outline” that so often caresses “solid” forms, we confront Cézanne’s lines that, often as not, float free of the forms they describe, just as his colors define the forms themselves without ever “touching” the imaginary outline.
Yet in the present work, we see what we take to be large and small apples, two or three oranges, at least one pear, and one lemon, all of which are held in their areas by the folds of cloth. There is no bowl, plate, or basket to contain them, and they seem to defy any order other than Cézanne’s own pictorial order—similarly to Henri Matisse's Nature morte bleue. Thus, he gives himself the task of making the disorderly orderly, of creating a pictorial world in which the complexity of the actual world is at once celebrated and brought to form by carefully placed strokes of color—either patches or groups of painted lines. His “struggle” is against the very still-life he created for himself to paint, and the future owner of this work is in for years and years of rewarding looking.
I raise the question of ownership, because it is always important for works of art. We sometime fetishize the provenance of a work of art in order to layer that work with the aura of important collectors. For this one, we need go no further than its first owner, Baron Denys Cochin. Cochin bought and sold the painting within Cézanne’s lifetime, making him one of perhaps a dozen non-artist collectors who owned works by the Master of Aix before his death in 1906, when his works were widely collected throughout the world. For our purposes, it is not who owned the work, but that it was sold by Cézanne or his son in the 1890s. This tells us that Cézanne worked on it as much as he wanted to and that its current state of “incompletion” was somehow sanctioned by the artist himself or, at the very least, accepted by its first owner.
At present, we do not know whether the work was acquired directly from Cézanne—or, more likely, his son, who remained in Paris and acted as his father’s agent. This raises the tantalizing idea that the work was in fact painted in Paris and left there either in his studio or in the Paris apartments in which his wife or son lived. It is also possible, though in no way provable, that the work was included in the large and completely undocumented Cézanne exhibition at Vollard’s gallery in Paris in 1895. No list of the exhibition survives, and Cézanne painted so many paintings of the same motifs that, even if it did, we would have difficulty identifying without Vollard Inventory numbers. Apparently Vollard had access to so many pictures and there was such a pent-up desire for Parisians to see paintings by Cézanne, that he reinstalled the gallery at least three times to show as many works as possible. Thus, the most important exhibition of Cézanne’s lifetime is an art historical quagmire in which this painting may have been shown.
Baron Cochin may have been a speculator rather than what we might call a “real” collector, but, before his death in 1922, he owned 31 paintings by Cézanne, more than most other French collectors (with the exception of the omnivorous Auguste Pellerin, to whom Cochin sold pictures—and from whom he bought others—by Cézanne). These 31 paintings are grouped online in the most important single source for a full understanding of the artist, the online catalogue raisonné called The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: An Online Catalogue Raisonné. They are now scattered throughout the world in public and private collections and, were they to be brought together, could constitute a small-scale retrospective of the artist at his finest.
They include 13 landscapes from 1870 to the years before his death, four portraits (three of women and one an unusual late self-portrait based on a photograph), one genre scene (the Orsay’s great Cardplayers), two female and one male bather, two cityscapes, and, most importantly for our purposes, seven still-life paintings made between 1877 and the years before the painter’s death. These alone are worth of a small, thoughtful exhibition and can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, the Neue Pinakotek in Munich, The Beyeler Foundation outside Basel, and the Courtauld Gallery in London in addition to private collections. Two of these, Pichet de gres in the Beyeler Collection and Nature morte avec l’amour en platre in the Courtauld are as bold as any still-life painted by Cézanne.
The present work is the only one among the seven that has significant areas of primed canvas visible and is, in certain ways, the boldest acquisition for Baron Cochin to have made. The Baron sold the picture to Durand-Ruel Gallery on the 11th of March 1902, four years before Cézanne’s death. There is evidence in the literature to suggest that Baron Cochin was actually an investor/speculator with Durand-Ruel, but, if he was, one or the other of them had an unfailing eye for Cézanne. From Cochin it went to Germany until after WWII when it was acquired by Justin Thannhauser, who sold it after ten years to another distinguished collector-couple, Drs. Harry and Ruth Bakwin, Vienna-form physicians who created one of the finest private collections of the post-war period in New York. The work was then acquired some 20 years ago by S.I. Newhouse, one of the most influential cultural figures and astute collector of the latter half of the 20th-century. Cézanne’s struggles to “incomplete” Bouilloire et fruits have been tracked in some detail here, and, because of them, he created a work of almost unparalleled energy for a “still-life.” Five generations of truly great collectors have recognized this energy. Now, we need a new one.
Written by Dr. Richard Brettell