A Show for Connoisseurs: Cezanne’s Basel Sketchbooks

New York City Tribune, Mar. 28, 1988, pp. 14, 10.

A Show for Connoisseurs: Cézanne’s Basel Sketchbooks

By Jason Edward Kaufman

The French painter, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), has become known as a great stylistic innovator whose techniques led directly to the advent of modernism. His method of depicting objects and landscapes by means of a tapestry-like pattern composed of small, rectangular fields of color is regarded as the forerunner of the fragmented geometry of Cubism.

That his canvases function on both the three-dimensional, illusionistic level, and on the two-dimensional, planar level, has made Cézanne the father of abstraction, a link from the representational, nineteenth-century and the abstract twentieth. This formal reading of Cézanne’s art is a valid one, but somewhat biased in its view of his career.

There is another side to Cézanne’s art, one firmly entrenched in the nineteenth, rather than the twentieth century, and it is this retrospective, as opposed to avant-garde side, that is featured in the exhibition “A Cézanne Treasure: The Basel Sketchbooks,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

Consisting of 114 sheets selected by Berenice Rose, Curator, Department of Drawings, at MOMA, and by Sir Lawrence Gowing, a noted Cézanne scholar, the assortment represents a significant portion of the rarely-exhibited pen-and-ink, charcoal, and pencil drawings in the collection of the Kupferstichkabinett (Department of Prints and Drawings) of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.

The drawings span Cézanne’s career from the 1860s through the turn of the century, affording a synoptic view of the artist’s working habits and pictorial sources. All of the favored subjects appear, including a few still-lifes and landscapes, and many figure groups and portraits. These are not, however, full-blown studies for works in oil or watercolor. Most are casual notations to which the artist would often return, adding unconnected studies to the same page, and which occasionally join shopping lists and addresses. Cézanne was a great artist, but many of these are not among his greatest aesthetic accomplishments.

Within this diverse array there is evidence both of the Romantic and the Academic temperaments of Cézanne’s art. In the early years, the Romantic dominates. In the catalogue essay, Professor Gowing states that only Cézanne, among his contemporaries in Paris (Monet, Pisarro, Degas) chose to draw from the imagination rather than from nature.

In the 1860s, his works are characterized by what Gowing terms “the fantasy of sexual violence.” Men grapple with one another as a woman lunges toward them. Opponents square off above a sprawled body. A man straddles a woman who appears to be unconscious and bleeding profusely. To the viewer who considers Cézanne a painter of sober and light-filled landscapes and still-lifes, these scenes will seem somewhat anomalous.

According to Gowing, “The habit of dreaming and the habit of drawing were at the outset closely related for Cézanne’s art and in his life.” In the Study for ‘The Eternal Feminine’ (1870-75) this tendency combines with a keen interest in the art of the past: derived from Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1828, Louvre), Cézanne creates a complex scene in which a group of figures approach a huge couch as if to pay homage to its occupant.

The nude figures fly about with unrestrained energy evocative of Baroque pictures by Rubens. The recumbent figure on the sofa recalls Ingres’ Odalisque (1814, Louvre) as well as the male personification of Night from Michelangelo’s Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici (c. 1520s, Medici Chapel, Florence). The result is an expression of both sensuality and power, with overtones of the psychological turmoil peculiar to the Delacroix.

Cézanne placed the scene within a rectangle, but in order to heighten the sense of uncontrolled forces, some of the figures dive and spill out from the bottom of the frame, merging the space of dream with that of drawing. Furthermore, along the right-hand side of the sheet, Cézanne has depicted a smiling figure, who peers around the edge of the frame, suggesting the artist himself, detached and observing his fantasy.

But, Cézanne was not limited to such bravura demonstrations of artistic fancy. He also practiced a highly refined mode of representation that was particularly effective in the area of portraiture.

Both in terms of draughtsmanship and composition, nothing could be farther from what Mr. Gowing calls “chaotic figuration” than Cézanne’s portraits of the Provençal artist Achille Empéraire (1867-70). The portrait busts are lessons in chiaroscuro and precision that contrast strongly with the recklessness of the Baroque figural compositions.

The full-length portrait of Empéraire, which seems to pun on the subject’s name by depicting him in the frontal seated pose traditional for images of the Emperor, is a powerful, static composition that indicates Cézanne’s respect for his sitter.

The artist’s increasing focus on fact rather than on fantasy is evident in his Self-portrait (c. 1880), and in portraits made in the 1880s of his son, his mistress, and his wife. Even when creating a theatrical picture, such as Mardi Gras (1888, Pushkin Museum), he uses a model, in this case his son, whom he dresses as Harlequin. Perhaps when he depicted himself in the same guise, Picasso proclaimed that he was the figurative son of Cézanne.

From the evidence of the sketchbooks, it would seem Cézanne devoted an inordinate amount of time to recording sketching trips to Paris museums, chiefly the Louvre. While there are some drawings after paintings, such as the Phidian shepherds after Poussin (late 1880s), the Eve Picking the Apple (after Titian) (1895), and Bellona (after Rubens) (late 1890s), most of the works depict statues.

These were not highly detailed, photographic studies, but rather notations on pictorial form, in which the artist has sought to block-in the general arrangement. From these sheets, one detects the source of Cézanne’s harmonious compositions and balanced, posed figures.

Classical order was not Cézanne’s invention, but a sensibility he acquired through diligent study of antique and Baroque nudes, and of Renaissance portrait busts.

The versions of Milo of Crotona (after Puget) (c. 1880s; late 1890s), the Borghese Mars (mid-1890s), Hercules Resting (after Puget) (late 1890s), and Mercury (after Pigalle) (c. 1890) all seem to distill the surfaces of the muscled bodies into a language of flowing curves. In his rendering of the portrait busts, such as Giovanni de’ Medici (after Mino da Fiesole) (e. 1880s) or Cardinal Richilieu (after Bernini) (mid 1890s), Cézanne has not only omitted nothing, but has succeeded in reanimating the lifeless marble.

He treats the statue as he would a live model, and breathes life into its form by means of his slightly abstracting, overlapping arcs. In his gesturation we see the basis of the artist’s formal structuring.

Yet, Cézanne’s formalism was inextricably bound to color. While one may detect certain congruences between his drawings and his oils and watercolors (most of the watercolors employ pencil underdrawings), rendered in contrasts of only black, gray, and white, the effect cannot be said to dazzle with the same jewellike intensity as in the colored works.

It was through his mastery of tone and hue that Cézanne accomplished his most subtle effects of recession, volume, and form. In the drawings, we may sense the presence of his formal mastery, but we must seek its expression in an attenuated language of line and shade rather than in its full, chromatic manifestation.

For those expecting the experience one gets looking at Cézanne’s watercolors or oils, the drawings will be somewhat disappointing. For those who have a certain degree of connoisseurship, the show will be more satisfying.

“Paul Cézanne: The Basel Sketchbooks” continues at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, through June 5. For further information call (212) 798-9400.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Mar. 28, 1988, pp. 14, 10.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us

Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


1987 (1)

2016 (289)

2017 (7)

2019 (2)

2020 (1)

2021 (4)

Join our Mailing list!