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2. Two Paintings: One or Both by Cézanne?

As far as we now know, the “Nantucket painting” is undocumented.  It was painted on a paper sheet, 52 x 66 cm (20.5 x 26.37 in.), which was glued to a stretched canvas and then taped around the edges to secure it to its stretcher. It was framed in a plain, grey-painted wooden frame, and when found, it bore a thick coat of natural resin varnish, which had oxidized (darkened) to a deep yellow ochre. The painting had minor scratches and two tiny pin holes in its surface; the frame was scuffed on its left side. This suggested a long period of neglect and careless storage.  The painting bore no signature, and the back of the stretcher bore no identifying marks.

Its near duplicate in the Musée d’Orsay was painted on canvas, 59.5 x 73 cm (27 7/16 x 28 ¾ in.) and was signed at the lower right.  It was painted by Cézanne between 1878 and 1879 in the village of L’Estaque, overlooking the bay opposite Marseille (about 760 km south of Paris), which was the subject of the painting.  In 1879 it was given by the artist to his friend, the painter Gustave Caillebotte, and it remained in Caillebotte’s collection (in his house, outside Paris) until his death in 1894, when (along with his entire art collection) it was bequeathed to the French State. In 1897, the painting was accessioned by the Musée de Luxembourg, where it was publicly exhibited for the first time. It was then transferred to the Louvre in 1927 and finally to the Musée d’Orsay in 1984.[1]

Once the owners brought me into the case, I immersed myself in Cézanne lore – spending weeks reading about his life, his views on art, his eccentricities, reading his letters and the remarks of those who had observed him at work, and studying all his works online in high resolution. By January 2023 I felt I had gained enough competence to judge whether the Nantucket painting could be considered his work or not.  It was not a difficult question.  In its uncleaned state, the painting, in its every detail, seemed completely “sincere”:  its age, its frame, its stretcher, its appropriate period construction (i.e. a paper sheet glued to a stretched canvas and taped around the edges), its (seemingly) original varnish, its “Cézannian” subject, composition, and painterly traits, its lack of pretention (i.e. no signature), etc.  Forgery seemed out of the question because nothing about this picture looked like it was made to sell.  Furthermore, at the time the painting appeared to have been made (ca. 1878-1898), Cézanne was little known, and his paintings would have had no attraction for a forger, since they would have had little commercial value.  The painting, with its intrusive “corrections” on the sea surface, also looked like an experimental work, made by an artist carelessly overpainting it solely for the purpose of trying out variations for a newer, superior version which he had not yet made (FWN 119).  Cézanne was also well-known for making duplicates of his own works (see Part 4), so finding a picture that almost exactly duplicated another Cézanne seemed only more supportive of its authenticity! Additionally, even though the painting lacked a known paper trail, there seemed to be strong circumstantial evidence for its existence within the known historical record – a record that even explained how it might have come to the United States and ended up on Nantucket!

With data strongly supporting the painting as a work by Cézanne (See Part 12, Conclusions), I approached Christie’s on behalf of the owners to inquire about getting the picture authenticated by one of their experts and offering the picture for sale at a forthcoming auction. Christie’s responded by saying that they could not auction any painting identified as a “Cézanne” unless it was first authenticated by the Committee of Cézanne’s Catalogue Raisonné (CR): Walter Feilchenfeldt, Jayne Warman and David Nash.  I then sent them the results of my research and in early February 2023 I received their collective opinion, which was

…. that the work is a copy of the well-known painting (FWN 119) but by another artist – probably a contemporary of Cézanne ‘s….// It is doubtful that your painting was a forgery for monetary gain because, as you say, Cézanne was not really marketable until later in his life. Instead, it appears to be the work of an artist who was trying to understand Cézanne ‘s methodology.

I was stunned and perplexed.  Why would they assume a copyist had painted this picture and not Cézanne himself?  The composition of the two paintings was identical (fig. 3), and it was clear that one painting had been traced from the other, apparently with a device known as a “camera lucida” (See Part 4). It was also obvious by looking at the two paintings side by side that the Nantucket version (if a copy at all) was no passive copy of FWN 119, for, while sharing the latter’s composition exactly, it had features without parallel on the other – especially the unusual impasto primer layer under the foreground (See Part 3) and the heavy blue lines appearing on the sea surface, which the artist painted over the varnish only after the painting was finished.  I wondered why the Committee would believe that a copyist would add such alternately original and crude “corrections” to his work if his supposed model was so highly finished.  Logically, the overpainted details looked like the strokes of an artist unconcerned with producing a finished painting in this work and wholly focused on perfecting an idea for another, still to be painted. If this were true, then our painting could not be a copy of FWN 119.  Rather FWN 119 had to be a copy of it – which meant that the artist of both had to be the same!  When I pointed this out to them, they simply balked and refused to discuss the matter further:

We have looked over your most recent documentation and we are still not convinced of the authenticity of the painting… It is our policy not to give reasons for our opinions, a practice that is in keeping with most other catalogue raisonné committees.

So, without even having seen the picture, they rejected the possibility that it was a work by Cézanne and would not explain why.[2]  As one who had researched the picture and had watched its ongoing cleaning (See Part 6), I could not understand their dismissiveness.  Wasn’t this particular painting, with all its “Cezannian” traits and visible age, worth a closer look and a deeper interest from these experts?[3]  The only thing it lacked, it seemed to me, was a historical document that linked it to Cézanne. Otherwise all its internal features proclaimed it to be his work.

Pushing back on the Committee, I encouraged the owners of the painting to launch this website to give the painting the publicity and visibility I felt it deserved.   Fortunately, in this rare case, the picture has a set of unique qualities which, we believe, allow it to self-authenticate as a work of Cézanne.  (Readers may follow our presentation and judge for themselves if we are right.)

Below is an mp4 video which compares the two works (fig. 3). Readers should click on it to activate the slider. As the slider moves, one can see that the two paintings match precisely!   The video reveals that they share – exactly – the same composition!  Obviously one painting was traced from the other, which means that at one time both paintings were in the possession of the same artist, who had to carefully set up a camera lucida in order,  laboriously, to trace one picture from the other.

Fig. 3.  Click on this video to launch the slider comparing the two paintings!  The rather sketchy, crude overpainting visible in the sea of the Nantucket painting (shown above) suggests it is not a copy of FWN 119 but an earlier version of it.  In FWN 119 these harsh details have been softened or eliminated.  Furthermore, the diagonal brushstrokes visible in the sky and on the hills above are all echoed in FWN 119.  Such brushstrokes, always painted at the same angle, are a hallmark of Cézanne s painterly technique.

For whatever reason (a reason which they refused to give), the CR Committee of “FWN” preferred to identify the artist of this painting as an unknown copyist of Cézanne rather than Cézanne himself.  If these are the only two possible options – an unknown copyist vs. Cézanne himself – the “unknown copyist” theory is the least tenable, as becomes apparent on closer look.  First, just as there were no forgers of Cézanne during the period in which this painting is presumed to have been made (ca. 1878-1898), there were also no known copyists of the reclusive artist. (To quote his young friend Emile Bernard: “Now [1904] that the paintings of the master [Cézanne] have been disbursed into private collections, it is difficult to speak of the ensemble of his work, what it was before, when he let nothing leave his studio and lived in solitude….” [See Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne.  Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001, pp. 35-36.]).  Second, even if there were a copyist to produce this picture, what could have been his motivation in making a reproduction, exact in every detail, of one of Cézanne’s pictures, when Cézanne himself was then virtually unknown and poorly regarded?  (Isn’t it more logical to believe that Cézanne himself traced the composition of our painting [as he did some of his other works. see Part 4] in order to produce FWN 119?  Third, if an unknown copyist painted this picture, when and where would he have had access to FWN 119  in order to trace it?  Between 1879 and 1894 it was sequestered in Gustave Caillebotte’s house in a Paris suburb, meaning that he could only have painted it there.[5]   (On the other hand, if Cézanne had painted it, he would have done so in 1878 in his studio in L’Estaque.)    Fourth, the short, angled, parallel brushstrokes visible in the varnish, in the sky and on the hillsides of the painting are a signature trait of Cézanne’s brushwork.  Why would the members of the Committee ask us to believe that these are the work of an unknown copyist “trying to understand Cézanne’s methodology” when they are indistinguishable from Cézanne’s own brushstrokes?   When the two paintings are examined together in the video, we see that the same brushstrokes appear in the sky and hillsides of both paintings – in the very same spots and at the very same angle.  It rather defies logic to think that these two pictures could have been painted by two different hands.   Would anyone other than Cézanne have had such a peculiar attachment to the subject (the village of L’Estaque) or such an obsession with his art?   In our view, the two pictures can only be successive steps in a single project undertaken by the same artist. (For a video of FWN 119 contrasted with the Nantucket picture in its cleaned state, see Part 6, fig. 34c).

[1] https://www.cezannecatalogue.com/catalogue/entry.php?id=386.
[2] On the role and absolutism of catalogue raisonne committees, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalogue_raisonné.
[3] On the problems inherent within the catalogue raisonné committee system and the legal entanglements arising from the process of authenticating (or not) an undocumented work by a particular artist and formally declaring it “genuine” or “fake,” which determines its monetary worth (vast or nil) on the art market, see:  “Maybes – Is their Room for Doubt in a Catalogue Raisonné?” https://vimeo.com/304648946.  See also the BBC television series (available online): “Fake or Fortune,” which documents many cases like this one.
[4] In 1907, R. P. Riviere and J. F. S. Schnerb (“L’atelier de Cézanne,” in La Grande Revue Dec. 25, 1907, 811-817) described the artist’s working method: “Canvas was nothing more for this Provençal master than a blackboard on which a mathematician works out the solutions to a problem. Perhaps it’s as much due to this idea of work as to the lack of concern for making his work known that such a great number of Cézanne’s paintings were left unfinished. For Cézanne, the one condition indispensable to true work was to be able to carry it out without material worries.” (Quoted in Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001, p. 89.)
[5] https://www.cezannecatalogue.com/catalogue/entry.php?id=386;  Gloria Groom, in Cézanne (Art Institute of Chicago – Tate 2022), pp. 26-28 and Appendix I, p. 226.