Monday, October 13, 2014

How Well Could Cézanne Draw?

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who received little general recognition until the last decade of his life, is now credited as being the "bridge" to modernist "isms" of the early 1900s from Impressionism and various Postimpressionist styles. His career is summarized here.

His image to casual art fans is that of a reclusive, provincial bumpkin who somehow made good in terms of Modernist Establishment art history. There is some truth in this, but there was more to Cézanne than that. In the first place, he had a good pre-university classical education, being able to translate from the Latin, for instance. He was a close boyhood friend of Émile Zola, later the famous journalist and novelist. His artistic potential caught the eye of Camille Pissarro, a leading French Impressionist, who joined him on plein air painting expeditions.

At his core, Cézanne can be considered a theorist, especially where art was concerned. He theorized about color, perspective, brushwork, the basic nature of forms and other matters that became important to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and other modernists who claimed that he had opened their eyes in various ways.

One thing Cézanne didn't much bother with was accurate drawing, especially of people -- something he must have considered incidental to his theory-based artistic goals. Or perhaps he didn't much bother with accurate drawing because he has limited ability in that task. Let's examine some evidence.

House of the Hanged Man, Auvers-sur-Oise - 1873
Cézanne painted many landscapes and still lifes. This is one of his best and most famous plein air efforts from the early part of his career. One would have to see the original scene to properly evaluate how Cézanne interpreted it. But what we can see here is something solid and reasonably believable.

The Barque of Dante (after Delacroix) c. 1870-73
He spent a fair amount of time in the Louvre when in Paris. Here is his copy of a Delacroix. Details are mostly omitted, but the colors and shapes of the subjects in the original are fairly well captured.

Hortense Breast Feeding Paul - c. 1873
Cézanne didn't marry Hortense until 1886 when their relationship was on the skids. But he was devoted to his son, young Paul. For this painting, he did a better job of depicting people than usual.

Couple in a Garden (The Conversation) - 1872-73
At about the same time, he made this painting where the people are badly done. It is likely that Cézanne did them from imagination, because he seldom paid for models.

Jeune garçon au gilet rouge - 1888-89
Fifteen years later he still gets anatomy wrong. Note how elongated the boy's upper right arm is. Also, just where is the left arm's elbow? The ear seems too large or the face is too small. Cézanne was noted for spending much of his time observing rather than painting -- taking long intervals between brush strokes. But if he was observing so closely, how could he have messed up so badly what was right before his eyes?

Les joueurs de carte (The Card Players) - 1892-95
Cézanne gets anatomy wrong in this, one of his most famous paintings. A charitable explanation is that he had his attention focused on other aspects of the scene, and that the men are mere props or fodder for his theoretical explorations.

So it seems that Cézanne was almost incapable of painting people properly proportioned. Now let's see what happens where painting and all his theories are stripped away and the focus is on depicting human form.

Studies - 1871-76
A page of sketches. The upper female figure is convincingly done from around the waist down, and the Arab in the foreground seems solidly done. The other figures are too sketchy to evaluate.

Self-Portrait - c. 1875
Another decently done job. Not a great drawing, but a good one. However, I do wonder a little regarding the size and placement of his ear.

Madame Cézanne with Hortensias - 1885
I think this treatment of Hortense is the best Cézanne drawing I've ever encountered. It shows that, on occasion, he could do a good job of depicting people. All that he needed was a pencil instead of a paintbrush.

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