Cezanne: Radical, Unfinished, Modern

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday June 9, 2021

“There are two things . . . the eye for the vision of nature and the brain for the logic of organized sensations.” —Paul Cezanne, quoted by Emile Bernard, a friend of the artist 

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) is widely credited for opening the door on to Modern Art. Looking at his finished oil paintings of subjects that range from portraits to still-life to landscape, it is not hard to see where future artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque found inspiration. Matisse, early in his career, made direct transcriptions from Cezanne, even filtering his major Still Life after Jan Davidsz de Heem's "La Desserte" through the mind of Cezanne. But nowhere is the older artist more radical in his use of themes, subjects, materials and methods than in his drawings and watercolors.

Cezanne Drawing, now on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art, offers a once in a generation opportunity to see his work and process through the master’s own eyes in more than 250 drawings, watercolors and related paintings. The exhibition, which nearly fills MoMA’s third floor galleries, brings together works from public and private collections the world over in ways that make his thoughts seem to speak from the walls they occupy.

Just by taking a single subject, his long-time studies of male bathers, done between 1862 [an academic study] and the year of his death in 1906, we can observe the ways in which he broke so many rules imposed by the Academy, which consistently spurned the artist’s work for the annual Salons from 1866 to 1891. Like many artists of his time, Cezanne used the Louvre Museum as “the book from which we learn to read”—spending much time drawing from masterworks, in particular, sculptures from antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque periods for the Bathers. 

He also drew from photographs picked up at street markets, and from printed images in magazines. It is the ways in which he recombined these images that was radical for his time. In the accompanying catalogue, Annemarie Iker shows that he not only changed the orientation of the figures, but also recombined body parts from different sources to get the figure he felt worked best within his drawing and watercolor studies. Some of these works further fed into his finished paintings of the subject, but many were simply part of Cezanne’s daily drawing practice, which served to further his “belle formule”, or “beautiful way of painting”, which he regarded as his “ideal of earthly happiness.”   


Cezanne drew in bound sketchbooks as well as on single sheets of paper, picking up one or another at random to the extent that studies done years apart might appear in the same sketchbook, or on opposite sides of the same sheet of paper. The scholarship that went into arranging the works in meaningful groups is evident when one begins to notice dates and details accorded through the wall labels. The Bather studies shown here occupy the various sides of the artist’s diverse output among works on paper; additionally, he made a number of lithographs [not included in this exhibition] based on these studies, which were then hand colored. The widely known finished oil paintings of male bathers that followed, which are held in museums from New York to Philadelphia to London to Moscow and Leningrad (above, dated ca.1890-91 not included in this exhibition), all began with the studies now on view at MoMA. 

Cezanne Drawing, on view at the Museum of Modern Art until September 25th. 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY Info The catalogue is available at the MoMA bookstore. Photo top, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art; middle: © Peggy Roalf; bottom, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.