Friday, 24 October 2008

Cézanne’s slow art

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – June 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter.

When we think of “impressionism”, we see buoyant artists painting fast on location in order to capture the fleeting light before it goes. This is most probably a cliché as we have evidence that even Monet used to work on his canvasses over long periods of time and would come back to them in the studio.

Cézanne was not a painter of the instant. In fact, he was deliberate to the extreme when painting. He hated when people watched him painting, but the best account I have read of his technique is the one by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard in his book “Listening to Cézanne, Degas, and Renoir”.

Vollard had ample time to see Cézanne in action as the artist was working on his portrait. The art dealer recalled how he sat through one hundred and fifteen sessions and described his fear of upsetting the artist (who in such a case often ended up stabbing the canvas with a painting knife or throwing it in the fireplace).

Cézanne liked to paint apples but it took him so long that they would be rotten before the painting was completed. He tried flowers and, as there were too short lived, he switched to paper flowers. He was still complaining that the colour of these artificial flowers would fade over time and Vollard reported that, in one instance, Cézanne resorted to an engraving as reference material to get all the time he needed to paint a still life.

Paul Cezanne. Still Life with a Curtain (1895). The Hermitage Museum.

Here is Vollard’s description of the process Cézanne used for oil painting:

“To paint, Cézanne used very soft brushes that reminded me of marten or polecat. He washed them after each stroke in a dipper full of turpentine. Whatever number of brushes he had, he would use them all during a session, and he was getting himself so dirty that the police arrested him one day he was coming back from working on location.”

“We can explain, by Cézanne’s working method, the solidity of his painting. As he was not painting with thick applications but rather layered the paint in applications as thin as watercolour, the colour would dry instantly: there was no fear that the internal tension of the paint would produce cracks, as it may happen when one paint on a layer that is not totally dry.”

If is difficult to imagine, while studying the thick application of paint on Cézanne’s canvasses that he worked this way. His process also explains why it was taking him so much time to complete a single work.

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