There is no more illustrious name in modern painting than that of Paul Cézanne, whose life-long struggle to achieve a synthesis between the old and the new constitutes one of the most triumphant chapters in the history of art. It is therefore with special pride that the Institute announces the acquisition of his great Provençal landscape, Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan.
This beautiful and dramatic view of one of Cézanne’s favorite subjects, until recently in the Frick Collection, was originally the property of Egisto Fabbri, of Florence. Fabbri, who was one of the first European collectors of Cézanne’s work, was also among the first to perceive in his paintings the “austere beauty” that is now universally recognized as one of the great contributions to modern painting. And it may be that Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan
was the particular canvas that moved Fabbri to recognize the austere character of Cézanne’s work, for it expresses, in terms of towering leafless trees and bare fields, the spare beauty of the Midi in winter. This unusual view of Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne’s country villa near Aix, was purchased from the Dunwoody Fund and is making its first appearance at the Institute in a loan exhibition of The Art of Cézanne.
The painting is a fully representative work of the artist’s mature period. It was painted between 1885 and 1887, when Cézanne was producing some of his most beautiful and significant canvases of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Gardanne, and the Jas de Bouffan. The last, which was his favorite motif after Mont Sainte-Victoire, appeared in fifty-two works dating from his youth until the estate was sold in 1899. Many views of the Jas de Bouffan depict this same avenue of chestnut trees, but this is the only one to present the scene in winter. In the bold, full forms, here stripped by season and artist together of the incidental elements that would obscure their essential character, the spectator experiences a powerful awareness of the eternal and immutable quality of nature. Cézanne’s great genius for getting at the heart of his subject is nowhere better displayed than in this painting.It is a magnificently designed composition in which Cézanne’s handling of space and color is seen at its best. Through a double row of chestnut trees, whose vertical forms create a surface design of great power and delicacy, a series of receding planes leads the eye from a low boundary wall to the towering mass of Mont Sainte-Victoire in the distance. The somber color scheme of grey, grey-green, and grey-blue, heightened only by the warm yellow planes of the farm buildings, accords perfectly with the stark character of the scene. The application of the pigment, thinly laid so that the canvas shows through in spots, was deliberate, serving to bind small color areas together and to emphasize the contours. This technique provides a further example of Cézanne’s knowing use of the painter’s language to emphasize the impression he wished to convey. He frequently adapted his technique to the nature of his motif, and possibly also to his mood. One of the outstanding characteristics of his paintings is that is displays both thought and emotion, and it is the emotion which lends it the enveloping quality missing in Poussin’s remote and frigid landscapes.Cézanne’s passionate desire to convey the exact impression of the sensations he experienced in the presence of nature led him by degrees to a study of the basic problems of painting: structure, the organization of volumes in space, color. Beginning as an imaginative painter of romantic scenes, he was first influenced by Delacroix, Courbet, and possibly Daumier. Captivated by Delacroix’s composition and color and by Courbet’s rich texture, he attempted to achieve a style that would combine these elements. At the same time he observed the old masters in the Louvre: Titian, Rubens, and Poussin among others. His paintings at this period, from about 1862 to 1870, were violent in both subject and treatment. Later he tried, under the influence of Pissarro, to paint in the manner of the impressionists. His palette became brighter, his brush strokes were broken up, and he used paint less lavishly than in his extreme youth, but he still expressed himself in the vehement manner that betrayed his passionate and mercurial temperament.As a result of working with Pissarro, Cézanne finally realized that romantic compositions were not for him and that nature was the only model to follow in his attempt to develop a personal style. He also realized that he could never achieve his purpose with respect to nature by following the theories of the impressionists. Their complete disregard for form, their dependence on the momentary aspect of nature, and their indifference to color, struck him as unsound and dangerous. He decided that he must work by himself toward the solution of the problems confronting him, and retired to Aix. There, driven by a sort of titanic fury to express in paint the intimate character of his native country, he continued his struggle.Although his statements regarding his own purpose were frequently contradictory and he did not, as Maurice Denis observed, “always think the same thing every day,” his subsequent performance shows that he wanted to develop a personal style that would combine the best elements of the old and the new. The two statements regularly quoted in this connection, that “we must do Poussin over again from nature” and that “we must make of impressionism something durable like the art of the museums,” indicate his faith in both traditional and contemporary painting. That he did find a way out of this apparent impasse is abundantly evident in his mature work. His beautifully orchestrated landscapes have a close kinship with those of Poussin, and place him in the great tradition of European painting. On the other hand, his system of modulated color planes, which give solidarity to form, made of impressionism something durable like the art of the museums.The Institute’s painting of Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan
is in every respect typical of the personal style evolved by Cézanne after years of painful endeavor. The organization of deep space, the system of small overlapping planes of modulated color, the large areas of color that reinforce the large structural planes, distortion, and the use of superimposed line to define contour, are all characteristic of Cézanne’s mature style. The two most immediately striking elements of this style are the abandonment of linear and aerial perspective and the use of overlapping planes of modulated color.Cézanne achieved depth through a series of receding planes that increase rather than diminish in size as they move back. This method is well shown in Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan,
where the mountain is clearly fixed in the distance and yet remains part of the foreground through its mass and firmness of contour. In this instance, the surface design of interlacing trees and the deep design of Mont Sainte-Victoire combine to create the strong illusion of three dimensions which is one of the miracles of Cézanne’s style. This illusion parallels, with regard to space, a sensation expressed by Cézanne toward the end of his life with regard to time. In a letter to his son Paul, thinking of his early association with Pissarro, who had died some years before, he wrote, “ . . .how distant everything is and yet how close.” This same bewildering sense of simultaneous nearness and distance is experienced in Cézanne’s great landscapes. In Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan,
for example, one feels that Mont Sainte-Victoire rears up almost directly beyond the fields of the estate while knowing that it is in fact quite distant.The use of small overlapping planes of modulated color, most clearly to be seen in the foreground of the painting, represents Cézanne’s development of the broken color theory of the impressionists. This system of small color planes that give solidity through the advancing character of warm color and the receding character of cool color, is one of his most remarkable contributions to painting. As well as adding to volumes the solidity lacking in the paintings of the impressionists, they contribute further to the three-dimensional illusion of the composition. Cézanne’s masterly handling of larger planes of color in achieving space effects in his composition is seen in the disposition of the two warm areas of yellow in the Institute’s painting. The definite outline that usually limits these areas gives proof of the fact that Cézanne did not concur in the impressionist denial of line in nature. His awareness of its importance in his compositions is shown not only by his observation that lines parallel to the horizon give breadth and lines perpendicular to the horizon give depth, but by his use of superimposed line to establish a contour during the process of applying color or to define a contour.Viewed from this distance, Cézanne’s painting is seen to be classic as well as revolutionary, and it is hard to realize why it was so long and so bitterly reviled by all but a small group of men who had faith in his genius even if they could not quite understand what he was getting at. One of the greatest disillusionments that Cézanne had to undergo was that which came to him with the realization that his boyhood friend, Zola, identified him absolutely with the abortive genius, Claud Lantier, in his novel, L’Oeuvre.
During the latter part of his life, Cézanne withdrew so completely from his former friends and associates that he became a legend to younger artists. But it was these younger artists, including Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bernard, and Maurice Denis, who were among the first to express their admiration for him and his work, and to seek his advice in his retreat at Aix.Cézanne had returned to Provence in 1877, following his final exhibition with the impressionists. The series of crushing defeats which had come to him since his first sojourn in Paris in 1861 had profoundly embittered him, and as a result of his failure in the third impressionist exhibition he made no further attempt to exhibit with his friends. He addressed himself assiduously to nature, convinced, as he later told Emile Bernard, that “for progress toward realization there is nothing but nature, and the eye becomes educated through contact with her.” The fruits of this preoccupation became fully evident in his painting during the eighties, when he began to realize his won complex vision of nature. Not until long after his death in 1906, however, did the world recognize the full extent of his genius, and his profound influence on modern painting.Although Cézanne was closely associated with the impressionists and exhibited with them, he was never one of them. Nor was he a symbolist, or a precursor of cubism. His advice to Bernard, that he “see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, putting everything in perspective,” is not an indication that Cézanne was interested in the development of geometric form in his paintings. It is true that some of his late works have a markedly abstract character, but even in their abstraction the forms remain natural, not geometric, forms. Nevertheless, they served as a point of departure for Braque and Picasso, who were only two of the many to be influenced by Cézanne.Cézanne was a realist more than anything else. He followed nature scrupulously, but in the desire to realize his sensations in the face of nature, and perhaps throw that mysterious bridge, of which Delacroix spoke, between his soul and that of the observer, he was not a realist in the true sense. He did not copy nature; he interpreted it according to his own vision. And so acute was his vision that his art was, in a partially Hegelian sense, closer to the spirit than the nature which inspired it. This becomes apparent on comparing photographs of the Midi landscape with his paintings of the same scenes. There is never, except in the last period of his art, any doubt as to the actual scene. Yet the paintings possess a nobility and truth that are missing in the motif itself to all but the most acute observer. Cézanne was interested in the abstract form of his motifs, and ruthlessly reduced every scene to its essential elements, cutting away the underbrush, distorting form freely if his composition required it, and manipulating space in a manner that is close to sorcery.However painfully he labored to achieve his end—and painting was a torment to him to the end of his life—he experienced in the presence of the Midi landscape the perfect freedom that comes only of perfect knowledge. His possession of his motif was total. He could not be deceived—and would not be distracted—by transitory effects of light or shade. Thus he has left to posterity paintings which portray nature in its elemental grandeur and truth. One of the greatest of these is the somber and beautiful Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan,
now in the Art Institute.Referenced Works of Art
Cover. Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan.
Detail of La Montagne Sainte-Victoire
Paul Cézanne, French, 1839-1906. Dunwoody Fund
- Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan
Paul Cézanne, French, 1839-1906. Dunwoody Fund
- Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan. Detail of Farm Buildings