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3. Taking a Closer Look

FWN 119 is highly finished in oils.  Its paint forms an even layer over the entire canvas. The foreground displays Cézanne’s distinctive brushwork pattern of tiny, angled strokes, painted in tight rows, in which the strokes, covering much of the picture, create an overall “pixelated” facture (fig. 4 a).[1]  The sea surface is painted differently – mainly with a series of horizontal strokes of modulated blue and white paint (fig. 5 a). The small, oblique brushstrokes begin again on the hills above the water as distinct bands of dark blue, grey and mauve. They then continue into the sky and grade from light yellow (below) to light blue (above).

The “Nantucket painting,” done on paper, is less refined than FWN 119 (see Part 6) and seems to have been an initial oil study for the other, which was done on canvas.  According to FWN, there are ten known paintings by the artist that are, like this one, painted in oil on paper mounted on canvas.[2]  Our painting would be an eleventh example.  (Cézanne may have commonly executed oil studies on paper to save money on stretchers and canvas, but many of these, being experimental, he may have simply discarded).[3]

If our painting had been painted by a copyist “seeking to understand Cézanne’s methodology,” we would expect to see its surface treatment closely following that of FWN 119 (fig. 4 a), but it does not (fig. 4 b).  The sea surface has obtrusive “corrections,” which have no parallel on the other.  Its foreground lacks the overall patterning of short diagonal brushstrokes seen in the other.  Instead, the artist has rendered the trees and vegetation as indistinct daubs or “patches” of green paint  – another trait of Cézanne’s [4] – and he has added the white details of road and rocks rather carelessly, if confidently, with a heavily loaded brush and strokes of impasto. In the foreground the diagonal strokes appear only in a row of green to the right of the smokestack – but the same strokes appear in FWN 119.

The strangest feature of this painting – also not present in FWN 119 – is the heavy foreground primer, which was laid on with a palette knife, one of Cézanne’s favored tools.[5]  As revealed by the x-ray (fig. 6), the artist carefully shaped this layer into parallel, angled “fingers” of paint, to each of which he carefully impressed a series of precise even ridges or ripples.  When overpainted these ripples gave the pictorial surface a relief effect reminiscent of Cézanne’s signature angled brush technique, so dominant in FWN 119.  But the treatment here is different and entirely original (fig. 7) – less the work of a passive copyist than an artist who was trying to invent something!

Fig. 4 a.  Surface detail of FWN 119:  The foreground landscape was painted in its entirely with short, tiny, diagonal brushstrokes, which created a “pixelated” facture.  This distinctive brushwork is a hallmark of Cézanne’s painterly style (cf. Part 12, figs. 38-39a-e)


Fig 4 b.  The same detail from the Nantucket painting (after cleaning): The foreground here was created using paint applied as “patches” or daubs of color laid over an impasto substrate of white paint, which had its own rippled relief texture.  No trace of such a primer can be detected in photographs of FWN 119.  Here the surface treatment bears little resemblance to that of FWN 119, although one row of short, green diagonal strokes appears to the right of the base of the smokestack, a detail shared by the other (cf. Part 12, figs. 39 d-e).


Fig. 5 a.  The mountains and sea surface appearing in FWN 119.  Note again the rows of diagonal brushstrokes on the hillsides and sky.  The tiny whisps of white paint, which indicate sailboats, are present in the very same spots in the other painting (below).


Fig. 5 b.  The hills and sea surface appearing in the Nantucket painting (after partial cleaning). The differences reveal that this painting is not a copy of the other but a earlier version of it.  Here the sea and hills were painted with thinned oils in the manner of watercolors (cf. Part 12, figs. 40 a, b). The heavy blue line carelessly added to the far shoreline and the dark blue spots in the water have no parallel in FWN 119.


Fig. 6.  The x-ray of the Nantucket painting shows that the artist applied a heavy, rippled primer of white paint with a palette knife to the lower half of the painting surface before he painted the overlying details of the landscape. This suggests that he may have been copying the sloping landscape outline from an even earlier version of the picture.   The sea surface, hills, and sky above, laid on as thin washes, barely show in the x-ray, but the later overpainted features, applied in thicker paint, can all be seen.
Fig 7.  The rippled primer of heavy white paint under the foreground landscape, laid on with a palette knife, gave the pictorial surface a kind of relief texture.  This treatment vaguely simulated Cézanne’s well-known method of painting in fine, diagonal brushstrokes, but it is entirely original. (The left half shows the surface cleaned; the right half still retains its layer of oxidized varnish).

[1] “Having learned the aesthetics and techniques of impressionism at the beginning of the 1870’s, Cézanne invented a new technique that he named the ‘constructive stroke.’  In this he aimed to convey on the canvas the sensations he derived from perceiving nature, transmitting them as oblique, parallel, small touches. Thus, he brought order to the chaos of sensations stimulated by his contact with nature, so that the autonomy of the painting could be realized independently from nature” (Takanori Nagai).  (   See also Ulrike Becks-Malorny in Cézanne 1839-1906. Pioneer of Modernism. (Köln 2020), p. 24: “Cézanne’s short, relaxed and free brushstrokes, resembling those of the Impressionists, gradually became more even and angular, often painted in parallel diagonals.”
[2] FWN 24 (ca. 1865): 20 x 21.5 cm; FWN 45-TA (ca. 1867): 14.5 x 21 cm; FWN 124 (c. 1879): 53.5 x 72.4 cm; FWN 429 (ca. 1870): 55 x 38.8 cm; FWN 593 (ca. 1867): 22.5 x 33 cm; FWN 629 (1873-74): 21.9 x 19.4 cm; FWN 692 (ca. 1895): 70 x 57 cm; FWN 827 (1890-94): 72.5 x 42 cm; FWN 907 (ca. 1876-77): 19.5 x 12 cm; FWN 1003 (ca. 1865): 19 x 15.2 cm.
[3] As Emil Bernard wrote of Cézanne in 1904: “This great artist is a humble man who has understood the ignorance and obstruction which have fallen upon his contemporaries. He has therefore closed his door in order to plunge himself into the absolute…He believes that work is sufficient in itself, and therefore he does not crave approval or praise… he certainly would never have let even the slightest study leave his studio if intelligent connoisseurs, however rare, had not carried it away, almost without his knowledge.” (In Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne.  Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001, p.43). Or p. 40: “For Cézanne himself, dominated by an absolute ideal, [some of his studies] were simply bad rather than good; no doubt vexed at seeing himself betrayed in them, he destroyed a great many, and exhibited none; but,just as they are, they nevertheless constitute the finest attempt at a pictorial and coloristic renascence that France has seen since Delacroix.”
[4] “(For Cézanne) to paint from nature is not to copy an object; it is to represent its sensations…, to see it by means of color patches, following upon each other according to a law of harmony. Nature’s broad coloration is thus analyzed by modulations. To paint is to record the sensations of color.” From Emile Bernard’s observations of Cézanne (Feb.-Mar. 1904).  Published in L’Occident, July 1904, 17-30, quoted in Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne.  Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001, pp. 38.  Compare, for example, the following paintings:  FWN 64, 65, 78, 82, 86, 88, 97, etc.
[5] During the 1860’s and 70’s Cézanne made many pictures – portraits and landscapes – exclusively with a palette knife.  These have been characterized as “…raucous likenesses slathered on with reckless abandon. Using only an intrusive palette knife, Cézanne applies the paint like a plasterer in a hurry to finish the job.” ( Manet, for his part, described Cézanne as a “bricklayer, who paints with a trowel” (Becks-Malorny [Köln 2020], p. 28).  FWN lists 32 paintings painted with a palette knife between 1865 and 1877.). The curious underlayer of white paint on our painting seems to be evidence of an artist with a unique personal relationship with this tool.
[6] “This is his method of working: first complete submission to his model; carefully establishing his composition; studying the curves and relations of proportions; then, in deeply meditative sessions, heightening the color sensations and elevating form into a decorative concept and color to its most harmonious register….”  From Emile Bernard’s observations of Cézanne Feb.-Mar. 1904).  Published in L’Occident, July 1904, 17-30, quoted in Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne.  Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001, pp. 35-36. For another unique example of Cézanne’s use of paint to create relief in a painting, see his “Bouquet of Flowers” in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (FWN 881) (Benedict Leca, ed. The World in an Apple:  The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne (Hamilton, Ont. 2014), pp. 74-75, pl. 9, fig. 10).  According to Leca,“What Cézanne appreciated was not just a mastery of color but the overall effect of an animated surface…” (p.75).