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8. The Painting’s History Reflected in the Varnish?

A close examination of the varnish of the painting provides an important clue to its history.  When the painting was complete and the paint dry, the artist applied to its surface  a thick coat of natural resin varnish. When the varnish was dry, feeling unhappy with the “finished picture,” he overpainted it with new details in oil.  At some later time, the fully painted, varnished, and overpainted paper sheet was glued to a stretched canvas, and the edges of the paper were taped to it.  The tape was folded over the sides of the stretcher and bonded to the backs of its wooden supports.  The picture was then framed.

When the old tape is lifted from the edges of the painting with a scalpel, we see that the varnish underneath the tape is slightly oxidized (yellowed), whereas the varnish exposed on the painting’s surface is much darker (figs. 37 a, b).  This suggests that between the application of the varnish (which would originally have been clear in color) and the taping and framing of the painting (when the varnish had started to darken) a passage of years had occurred.  Because the exposed varnish on the painting surface is much darker than that under the tape (where the oxidation process had been halted by the taping), we can “see” here three moments in the painting’s history: 1) the completion of the painting when the (clear) varnish was first applied, 2) the taping of the edges of the paper prior to framing, when the varnish was already partially discolored by age, and 3) the state of the painting before its 2022 cleaning, when the varnish had fully oxidized.

Fig. 37 a (left). The application of the tape to the painting obviously post-dated (probably by years) the varnish and overpainted details (like the visible heavy blue lines painted along the shorelines) (Detail from right side of the painting before cleaning).
Fig. 37 b (right). When the tape is removed from the painting edge, the underlying varnish has a much lighter color than that on the open surface of the painting, indicating that the taping and framing of the picture had occurred at an intermediate stage in the oxidation process of the varnish – implying a passage of years between the painting and framing of the picture. (Note the tiny pinhole puncture, which is one of two on the paper surface.)

According to our paintings conservator, Ms. Carmichael, dammar and mastic resin varnishes (of which this varnish appears to be one) reach their maximum oxidation (yellowing or darkening) after about thirty years.  We may conclude, therefore, that the taping of the painting occurred partway through the oxidation process, when the darkening of the varnish was about half complete.  If the picture had been painted and varnished about 1878, when the varnish would have been clear in color, it is evident that it was taped and framed at some later date, between then and about 1908, when the varnish would have reached its maximum darkening.  We can pinpoint this middle date at ca. 1894, 15 years after the painting had been completed, when Ambroise Vollard would have received the painting as a loose sheet of paper from Cézanne’s storage inventory, mounted it on a stretched canvas, taped the edges and framed it for exhibition, including it (with a number of other still unidentified paintings) in his first and/or second Cézanne shows (1895 and 1898).[1]

It is unclear how many other paintings-on-paper (or how many other paintings) Cézanne may have varnished himself.[2]  There seems to be little information.  But during most of his lifetime he was a recluse, having little or no concern for marketing his works.[3] If he varnished his paintings, it was probably only to give them an even sheen, to satisfy a personal aesthetic goal.  Given the rapid rate at which resin varnishes darken, it is likely that any works originally varnished by Cézanne would, by the early twentieth century, have had their original varnish removed and replaced.  That Cézanne’s paintings were varnished is evident by a remark made by Leo Stein in a letter to his sister Gertrude (then traveling in Spain) in August 1912:

“All the Renoirs & Cézannes, the Manet & Daumier have been cleaned and varnished [while you were away]. I have never seen what the Cézanne landscape was like until it was cleaned. The light yellows & the sky have become something entirely different.”[4]

From this remark we can see that, by 1912, the varnish on all the Cézannes owned by the Steins, some of which were then perhaps twenty or thirty years old, had so darkened that the originals all had to be cleaned and revarnished.  When the old varnish was removed from one of their “landscapes” its change in appearance was particularly startling – just as in our painting! We may guess that the dark varnish on our painting, which seems never to have been removed, was the same as that which the artist had applied to the Steins’ pictures and which Leo removed in 1912!

Left to his own, Cézanne would probably never have offered this painting for sale, had not someone like Ambroise Vollard convinced him otherwise.[5]  As Vollard must have recognized, the painting had sales potential because it was, after all, the original study for FWN 119, which had just been bequeathed by Caillebotte to the French State (1894) and which went on public exhibition at the Musée de Luxembourg in 1896-97, just when Vollard was preparing his second show of Cézanne’s works.

[1] A. Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer (Boston 1936), p. 60.
[2] In her study of the ten Cézannes at the National Gallery in London, Elizabeth Reissner remarked: “The National Gallery Cézannes are all varnished. There is no documentary evidence concerning Cézanne’s attitude to this traditional practice, although there is evidence that his principal dealer, Vollard, routinely had pictures ‘prepared’ for sale. It is likely this involved both the varnishing and the lining of paintings.”  (Elizabeth Reissner, “Ways of Making: Practice and Innovation in Cézanne’s Painting in the National Gallery,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Volume 29, 2008, 11).  https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/upload/pdf/reissner2008.pdf
[3]“(Cézanne) knows only his canvas, his palette, his colors, and 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. Since the day Paul Cézanne closed his doors on the world, Mr. Amboise Vollard, the sympathetic expert of the rue Laffitte, has satisfied our desire to know Cézanne’s oeuvre more completely; he is still doing his best.” (From Emile Bernard’s observations of Cézanne [Feb.-Mar. 1904], published in L’Occident, July 1904, 17-30. Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne [Berkeley 2001]p. 43).
[4] John Rewald, Cézanne and America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists and Critics 1891-1921. Princeton 1989, pp. 75-76.
[5] See note 3.