‘Refaire Poussin sur nature’. Why did Cézanne single out Poussin when Rubens was his hero – his avowed and his manifest hero?

One thing that Cézanne and Poussin have in common is that they seem unable to make an image that isn’t imbued with gravity. Another is that everything in the picture seems to be in a place ordained for it. But not through a similar process. Poussin is a master manipulator of compositional tactics and strategies, shaping components and fitting them together in an ideal pictorial space with a peerless erudition, inventiveness and cunning: Cézanne tries, against the odds, to work out how depictions of figures and their setting on a flat surface can be organised in a way that makes them an ideal re-creation of figures and their setting in the space of the real world. Again, a Poussin is the performance of an interpretation of the subject reached through deep, prolonged reflection on the psychological content of an event; a figure-composition by the mature Cézanne looks as if the artist had focused entirely on questions of form, leaving the content to look after itself. And then Poussin’s act of creation is largely achieved in preparatory drawings; with Cézanne, even more than with Rubens, the act of painting is a continuous revision of intention.

Doing Poussin again from nature, then, couldn’t have meant producing an art akin to Poussin’s. What Cézanne meant, I think, was ‘doing a Poussin’: he used Poussin’s name as a paradigm of Order and Art, antitheses to the chaos of Nature. It was no good saying ‘Refaire Rubens sur nature’, because Rubens was like a force of nature. Cézanne invoked the great artificer.

Cézanne’s statement to Francis Jourdain that his constant preoccupation had been ‘de rendre sensible la distance réelle entre l’oeil et l’objet’ obviously relates to the feelings about the dangers of closeness expressed in those early poems sent to Zola in which ravishing beings with angelic voices dissolve away as he approaches them and a beauty becomes a skeleton as he tries to possess her, feelings expressed in reverse in his phobia about being touched. An anxiety that things should be kept at arm’s length could have been placated by using the act of painting to ascertain and map precisely where things out there were. But, if everything had to be kept in its proper place, his interest in doing it could be sustained only if things out there were given a right to live, to vibrate, to dance, to threaten to jump out of place, thereby creating a tension between their anarchic force and the opposing force holding them in position.

Writing in 1896-7, the young Bernhard Berenson spoke of ‘the exquisite modelling of Cézanne, who gives the sky its tactile values as perfectly as Michelangelo has given them to the human figure’.

Michelangelo’s is not one of the names commonly brought up in talk about Cézanne, so that Berenson’s dashing comparison provokes reflection on whether there aren’t other points of resemblance. The most obvious is that Cézanne’s love of the Venetians is concentrated above all – his work suggests – on Tintoretto, and Tintoretto’s drawing comes straight out of Michelangelo. Another affinity that comes to mind is that Cézanne’s frequent practice, in seeking to give plasticity to a head, of dislocating one of its lateral planes and pulling it round so that it widens the frontal view, was fully anticipated by Michelangelo in the British Museum’s life-size cartoon of a sacra conversazione. More fundamentally, is not the unfinished condition or unfinished look that is such a crucial attribute of Cézanne’s painting closely akin to the nonfinito in Michelangelo’s sculpture? The similarity is that both are about varying the degree to which a form is made to emerge from vagueness into clarity. Of course there’s the difference that whereas with Michelangelo the form is emerging from the inchoate block of material to which the artist is giving shape, with Cézanne it is emerging from ambiguous brush-marks which the artist himself has put on the canvas or paper. The essential is that the practice has to do with holding definition in reserve. One outcome is that we are brought face to face with the anxiety and drama of creation.

Cézanne’s use of the nonfinito was in parallel to Michelangelo’s, not in imitation of him, as it was with Rodin, who consciously borrowed it for use as a rhetorical device. On the other hand, given that Cézanne is a painterly painter, does it make sense to liken his use of the nonfinito to that of Michelangelo, a carver, rather than that of Rodin, a modeller? One reason it makes sense is that his exemplar was Rubens and Rubens is a sort of carver: he gives flesh the inner luminosity of marble.

Controlling how much is to be made clear, the nonfinito can be a way of withholding inessential information. In the Philadelphia Grandes Baigneuses, it ensures that we cannot identify the entities on the far bank of the river which, with their central position, are the very focal point of the picture. Is that a man standing gazing at the bathers – an Actaeon? Beside him is – what? – a child, a dwarf, a donkey seen from the rear? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the taller form with its pointed head rhymes with the far-away tower and thereby serves the paramount need for the eye to be encouraged to traverse the long distance between background and foreground, and that the shorter form is there to give bulk to this marker. While it is probable that Cézanne would have gone on with this canvas had he lived longer and possible that he would have elaborated these central forms, it is certain that he felt under no pressure to make them identifiable.

Again, in the loosely-painted, almost grisaille, medium-sized Baigneuses of 1902-6 there is a strong suggestion in the central group of four figures standing in the water that they are involved in some sacred happening. If we have to rack our brains to decide what the happening is, that is already a sign that we are abusing the painting by turning it into a puzzle. This painting is expressly not a depiction of a sacred event which happens to be unidentified as yet: it is a painting designed to intimate without help from an explicit narrative that it belongs to a tradition of pictures depicting sacred events.

Cézanne’s art tends more than most to render visible its aesthetic. None of its lessons in the nature of painting is more essential than that pictures are meant to be taken as they are, are not there in order to be deciphered.

Modernist artists who have preferred Cézanne to the Renaissance tradition have maintained that his use of colour belongs to a wider and longer tradition, one for which a painting has to be a fact rather than an illusion. Whatever Cézanne’s heritage from Rubens and Tintoretto and Michelangelo, he has deeper affinities with Giotto and Cimabue.

Cézanne’s career is a Hegelian’s dream. The thesis and antithesis here are the Dionysian and the Apollonian. An alternative formulation: the I and the eye.

The early unbridled figure-compositions depicting murders, rapes, orgies and the like were realised with the same intense inner need to externalise such visions as impelled him to include sado-masochistic erotic poems in his youthful letters to Zola. Compared with his contemporaneous groups of bathers that do not have a narrative content, the fantastic pictures almost seem to have been painted in the way we may have to recount the night’s bad dreams over breakfast before we can get on with the day.

His antidote to the diable au corps, his path to sublimation, was to dedicate himself to working patiently, sanely, soberly, from nature, a course taken from about 1872 on under the guidance of ‘l’humble et colossal Pissarro’. From about 1888, the dialectical process resulted in a marvellous synthesis between the violent and the contemplative.

But what picture would we have had of Cézanne if he had died in 1887? Of course, great artists (Proust apart) rarely do die at around fifty: once they’ve reached forty, they tend to survive beyond sixty. And these survivors almost all have a fallow period in their middle years during which they rest on their oars and cash in on their early success while gathering energy to launch themselves on fresh enterprises. Had Rembrandt or Matisse, who are classic examples of this, died in the course of those years, the artistic identities they left behind would have been broadly those they did leave, even though they both went on to a glorious late period. If Cézanne had died in 1887, our impression of his artistic identity would have been radically different from what it is. It would have been that of an artist of great and diverse qualities who produced masterpieces but never really got it all together – not quite Frenhofer, but not an artist who was on the verge of the grand synthesis sustained throughout his last 18 years.

With Cézanne, works produced under the pressure of aims fraught with internal contradictions and in a state of agonising doubt arrive at a ravishing lyricism.

But he can also create light of an intensity that bores into your eyes the way ice burns your hands.

He had the stubbornness of the hedgehog but also the quickness of the fox. Uniquely, he was a master of the figure-composition and of the portrait and of landscape and of still life. And that is only the beginning of his versatility.

Within each of those domains there is an exceptional range of mood. And an exceptional range of physique. For example, at one end of the gamut of the still lifes is the watercolour of 1902-6 in the Thaw Collection in which a bottle with some red wine left in it and a small blue pot and a cluster of little apples close together on a large stretch of white tablecloth are realised in transparent washes that are so pale and so spare that the work is dominated by an expanse of naked paper transformed into radiant white marble; at the other end is the large oil of c. 1899 in the Musée d’Orsay, densely painted in high-temperature colours, in which a table is laden with a painted jug, a score or more of apples and oranges, each an explosive parcel of energy, scattered about on a white tablecloth loosely draped over the table’s edge, while at the rear is a heavy patterned textile pushed and pulled so that it resembles a range of hills, and in this tumultuous prospect those animated spheres seem to be moving towards us as if threatening to spill over the edge of the cliff created by the tablecloth rather as carved reclining figures in the pediment of a Baroque façade seem to be toppling over the edge but immobilised.

The Philadelphia Grandes Baigneuses first impresses, like a cathedral, with an immense calm. A feeling of expectancy emerges, perhaps a sense of foreboding. It becomes clear that there are forces thrusting in different directions in each of the groups of figures, forces which in the left-hand group balance out but in the right become violent in their opposition. Nevertheless, from a distance, calm rules. But when we go up to the picture those thrusting forces act on us so that we almost feel we’re being torn apart by a pack of dogs. When we retreat to a distance and look again, we are filled more than ever by feelings of peace and ease and grandeur and also by a growing elation that is engendered by a sense of movement going on within the bow-shaped arcs of the great Gothic arch created by the trunks of the trees. It is a play of smaller bow-shaped arcs created by bathers’ arms, arcs which seem to move to and fro across the picture-plane like a swing.

In total contrast with this soaring amplitude of height and depth, the National Gallery version is almost like a frieze in its proportions and like a relief in conception. And this sense of compression in physical depth, together with the lack of room to contain much sky, make it more concentrated in energy and fiercer in emotion. It is thus a perfect foil to the Philadelphia picture, with which it has now been shown together, for the first time since the Salon d’Automne of 1907, at the Grand Palais and the Tate, surviving the tough competition as it has never survived its presentation at the National Gallery with no space in which to breathe.

The high drama engendered in both pictures by the action of the form alone means that these are large-scale gatherings of nude figures which don’t require the sort of dramatic interest normally provided in such works by, say, ill-feeling between Diana and Actaeon or Diana and Callisto. In the absence of that sort of drama some commentators use psychoanalytic speculation to tease out hidden stories unconscious fantasies that could be supposed to have made Cézanne put a figure like this here and one like that there. But there is no need for such scenarios. Their absence leaves no lack of purpose in the paintings.

In some of the landscapes there’s a great silence and emptiness and at the same time a throb, a pulse.

It’s like the experience of certain polyphonic music, such as Bach’s choral preludes – an uncanny combination of relentless onward movement and total stillness.

If the groups of bathers of Cézanne’s maturity have no need to be seen as images of mythological events, whether of classical or personal origin, the groups of figures portraying individuals need no back-up from actual events. Compare the card-players around a table with Rembrandt’s syndics around a table. If we were told that one of the syndics had embezzled his company’s funds, this might not add to our aesthetic pleasure when looking at the painting, but we would probably be interested to learn something about the history of any of these characters. We would surely not take that kind of interest in the personal doings and undoings of the card-players, for these men are only really alive while Cézanne is painting them.

It’s the same thing with the great single portraits of that period, such as the Madame Cézanne au fauteuil jaune of 1893-5 or the Portrait de Joachim Gasquet of 1896. The sitter is not projected as a character. When that rule is broken, things go wrong, as in La Vieille au chapelet, which the artist abandoned. Not being distracted by the temptation to define character allowed Cézanne to concentrate all his attention on achieving the most precise and complete sensation of a human presence, of the way someone in reality appears in space. He achieves it more, I think, than Rembrandt or Velázquez, partly because he was also undistracted by an interest in virtuoso illusionism, partly because he was supreme in dealing with the problem of recreating the density that people seem to have as we look at them. Rembrandt tends to make them too heavy, Velázquez tends to make them too light. Cézanne gets the weight of their presence right.

‘Tout ce que nous voyons, n’est-ce pas, se disperse, s’en va. La nature est toujours la même, mais rien ne demeure d’elle, de ce qui nous apparaît. Notre art doit, lui, donner le frisson de sa durée avec les éléments, l’apparence de tous ses changements. Il doit nous la faire goûter éternelle.’ The great paradox – capturing nature’s changes while conveying its permanence – reaches its most compelling realisation in the series of Le Mont Sainte-Victoire vu des Lauves of 1902-6.

There is a sense of agitation, disruption, violence even, in the foreground and middle distance that churns us up as we look. There is movement in the paint of the upper stratum too, that of the mountain and the sky, but here the overall effect is one of calm, partly because this stratum is keeping the lid on the tumult below, partly because the celestial blue and the reassuring shape of the mountain create both a feeling of elevation and an intimation of eternity.

It is remarkable, of course, that the accumulation of brushmarks in the lower stratum is as disturbing as it is, more so than in some hectic creation by an expressionistic painter, given that the strokes have been placed and articulated with the greatest consideration and hesitation. What engenders unease must be the combination of abrupt changes of direction in the strokes with the roughness of surface that comes from the lack of finish. The agitation could result from a sense of nature bursting into growth; but also from a sense of decay and disintegration. The nonfinito is a metaphor for becoming.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences