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7.  The Painting’s History Reflected in the Frame?

If the Nantucket painting is an important addition to Cézanne’s oeuvre, it is also remarkable as a historical artifact.  It was found in its (apparent) original, unrestored condition, still with its original varnish and still framed in its (presumably) original, painted-wood frame. The plain, unpretentious appearance of the frame might at least partially explain how (in the absence of the artist’s signature) the painting could have been forgotten and its identity lost.  It simply did not look important!

The inexpensive frame also suggests that the painting was sold to its buyer before Cézanne had achieved any great fame and before his works had begun to bring high prices (i.e. before about 1898).  The frame also offers proof that the painting had been exhibited publicly somewhere.  This exhibition was undoubtedly in Paris, in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, where its buyer (undoubtedly an American) could have seen it, purchased it, and brought it to the U.S.  Since Cézanne’s works were first presented in two single artist shows by Vollard in 1895 and 1898, the date of the picture’s purchase and removal to America can safely be placed within this timeframe (as explained by the evidence presented below).

By the earliest years of the twentieth century, most collectors of French Impressionist paintings had begun to remove the original plain frames that had been added by their dealers or by the artists themselves, and to reframe them in more ostentatious gilded frames as befitting their rapidly rising prices and public acclaim.  It is in these ornate secondary frames that most of the paintings are exhibited in museums today.

The frame of our painting is austere: painted a light pinkish-grey over a gesso wash.  Its outer facing edge is carved as a line of small overlapping scales or feathers, which begin at the center point of each side and flow in opposite directions toward the corners (figs. 25, 35).

Fig. 35. The plain, gray-painted original frame of the Nantucket painting.

This type of frame is strikingly like that which was used by Degas in the 1880’s and 90’s, many of whose paintings in the Musée d’Orsay still have these frames, as seen in the photos below (fig. 36).  Degas’ frames, however, were also gilded, a detail which much aided the sale of the pictures.[1]

Fig. 36. Paintings by Degas still in their original frames, Musée d’Orsay.

As we will see below, there are strong reasons, irrespective of the frame, for believing that our painting was included in Vollard’s 1895 and/or 1898 exhibitions of Cézanne’s work.  The frame makes this conclusion all the more convincing, for in his autobiography, Vollard tells us that in preparation for his 1895 show he bought the entire contents of Cézanne’s Paris studio from the artist, adding: “I had a great difficulty in organizing my exhibition, the canvases having been sent me without stretchers or frames.”[2]  This probably applied to a painting on paper as well.  The comment suggests that none of the paintings Vollard bought from Cézanne for his first show were framed, and this was probably also true of his second.  Vollard also recorded that he paid Cézanne between 25 and 250 francs for each canvas (i.e. between about $170.00 and $1700.00 in today’s money), with the average price per item being 150 francs (about $1000).[3] Since the value of these pictures was so low in 1895, and since he could not predict how well they would sell, Vollard would naturally have framed them as cheaply as possible.  We can thus suspect that our frame was added by Vollard to an unframed, loose paper oil sketch (which he also glued to a stretched canvas, probably to make it seem more important – and thus salable for more money).  We may assume that he had bought this sketch from Cézanne between 1894 and 1898 and included it as an entry in one or both of his shows (the complete inventories for which are still unknown).  In this respect our painting – preserving its original frame – is probably a singular rarity!

[2] Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer (Boston 1936), p. 60.
[3]  See Stockbook A (1899-April 1904).