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Cézanne and His Temperament

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

One of the most stirring accounts of Cézanne’s old age was offered by the painter Émile Bernard in his memoirs. Bernard spent time with Cézanne in Aix when the artist was already considered a hopeless eccentric, stoned by boys in the streets. One evening at dinner, Bernard mentioned Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s story, “The Unknown Masterpiece.” Cézanne “got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, he designated himself—without a word—but through this repeated gesture, as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.”

Cézanne’s identification with Frenhofer, the ecstatic painter in Balzac’s fable whose masterpiece receded during ten years’ struggle and was finally rendered unintelligible to his contemporaries, is more than an anecdote. Nearly 40 years before, Cézanne had amused himself by answering questions in a little eight-page album, “Mes Confidences.” The album, decorated with the furbelows dear to the 19th-century middle classes, posed 24 questions of preferences ranging from favorite smells, flowers, and food, to favorite painters and writers. To the question: to what character from literature or the theater are you most drawn, he had replied Frenhofer.

Who was Frenhofer for Cézanne? Balzac draws him as a genius ferociously obsessed with a vision; a painter physically resembling the aged Rembrandt whose quest for perfection, as he worked for ten years on his portrait of a famous courtesan, led him to the abyss of abstraction. When two younger painters—the middle-aged Porbus and the very young Poussin—visit Frenhofer’s studio and finally persuade him to show his masterpiece, what they see is nothing but colors piled one upon another in confusion, and held in restraint by a multitude of curious lines which form a wall of painting. Moving close, they discern in the corner of the canvas the tip of a bare foot “which emerged from this chaos of colors, tones, indecisive nuances, a kind of fog without form, but a foot, a living foot!. . . This foot appeared there like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising up from among the ruins of a burned city.”

For Cézanne, Frenhofer was a fearful but infinitely alluring model. He knew the story by heart, and there is considerable evidence that painting principles Balzac had enunciated in the fable were actually adapted by Cézanne as his own. But I believe Cézanne’s tremulous emotion as he designated himself Frenhofer springs from his recognition that he had, like Frenhofer, committed himself to an impossible ideal—what he called in a letter to Monet the “chimerical pursuit of art.” His spiritual development was as dramatic as Balzac’s fable. For Cézanne, the great problem was to avoid the sin of pride, i.e. abstraction, which was yet implicit in his temperamental urge to the absolute. Frenhofer’s hubris was a frightening warning to Cézanne, who always felt himself drawn to the absolute, and whose highest aspiration, as he said in answer to a question in the album, was to reach certainty.

But doubt was his lifelong companion, and it was that aspect of his personality that permitted forthcoming generations to recognize him as a modern artist. Picasso identified the Frenhofer in Cézanne when he told us that what forces our interest in Cézanne is his anxiety: “It’s not what an artist does that counts, but what he is. What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety—that’s Cézanne’s lesson. . . .”

Cézanne’s irregular development as a painter was one of the sources of his anxiety. His restlessness, his wild exploratory tendencies, his unwillingness to adopt the received ideas of his day were traits that he recognized early and fretted about, as we know from his letters. At the same time, he recognized that his character, his “temperament” was his richest resource. Much of his behaviour as a young painter newly arrived in Paris can be attributed to the strong experiences of his adolescence, which always seem to have been vivid in his memory and always served him as goads in his later years. Those experiences include not only the active life of the rambling romantic schoolboy foraging amongst the rural splendors of Aix with his friend Zola but also the contemplative life of the reader.

Cézanne was an attentive reader, a serious reader to whom the significant phrases that had moved him in his youth returned again and again in his life. He was not, as the French like to say, bete comme un peintre, but rather, sought confirmation of his temperament in a wide spectrum of reading. When very young, he had been stirred by the poetry of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, the romantic modern poets of his time. But he was also an enthusiastic Latinist, reading Lucretius and Virgil, and trying in his own voluminous schoolboy verses to capture Virgil’s style. When he discovered Baudelaire, he recognized his greatness and returned throughout his life both to the poetry and the essays. In the last year of his life, he reread L’Art Romantique, remarking, “un des forts est Baudelaire.”

During the turbulent early years in Paris Cézanne wavered between a violent romanticism and the more “analytic” (as Zola called them) attitudes of his contemporaries. He strengthened his conviction that only “temperament” could propel an artist. His special notion of temperament, born in a turmoil of emotional responses to life and to painting, was quite out of keeping with the spirit of his youthful colleagues. They also used the term, but far more temperately. For Ce zanne, temperament was identified with an elemental force— the force that Balzac’s generation had flatly referred to as genius. In his early years in Paris, Cézanne’s “temperament” expressed itself in the strange troubled expressionist fantasies he painted with so much agony. His “temperament” led to his rejection at the Académic de Beaux Arts, where the examiner reported “he paints riotously,” an adjective Balzac had used about Frenhofer. The tenebrous scenes, such as the scene of murder in which violence is underscored by the use of deep blues and blackish clouds, expressed his temperament during the 1860’s. The ideal of temperamental force, which, although reshaped during his mature painting years, always came first for Cézanne, made him remark to Guillemet: “Don’t you think your Corot is somewhat lacking in temperament?”

Cézanne believed, as he often said, that the painter has to have “quelque chose dans l’estomac.” Guts, the image of Frenhofer, gripped in his passion to realize a vision, was Cézanne’s. He was as eager to reject the accommodations of the juste milieu bourgeois mentality as any of Balzac’s heroes, and he did it, often, by means of deliberately coarse language. The most frequently reported phrase used to fend off sycophantic admirers would be equivalent to: a painter has to have balls. Even if, during the months he spent with Pissarro at Pontoise in 1871 and 1872, Cézanne found a means of calming his eruptive temperament by applying the disciplines inherent in Pissarro’s impressionist method, he never relinquished his original vision of the driving force, the dynamic and irresistible aspect of temperament which he would later try to reconcile with the need for what Rilke called “work of the hand.” The conflicts so urgently described in “The Unknown Masterpiece” were intense in Cézanne’s youth and revisited him in his last years.

Cézanne was in his late twenties when he did the little sketches presumed to be of Frenhofer. During the same period (1866—69), he sketched illustrations for his other supremely important reading experience—Baudelaire’s poem in Fleurs du Mat, “ Une Charogne.” Baudelaire’s poem—one of the most violent, sardonic images in his entire oeuvre—was to remain with Cézanne. In his old age he sometimes recited it to youthful admirers, always with emotion. It is not difficult to understand Cézanne’s initial response to the poem. Preoccupied as he was during those years with fearful visions of rape and murder, the grotesque description in Baudelaire’s poem of a rotting, maggot-ridden carrion in the hot sun would have excited him. His little sketch of a rather dandyish tophatted young man (Baudelaire himself) gingerly poking the carcass with his cane, while a young woman leans away, shielding herself from the stench, shows his interest in coming to terms with such monstrous experiences.

But there was more for Cézanne in Baudelaire’s poem. Certainly the opening lines, with their sharp juxtaposition of a beautiful summer morning and the sudden view of “a filthy carrion . . . legs in the air, like a lascivious woman, burning and sweating poisons” appealed during those early years to Cézanne’s sense of melodrama. The intrepid realism in the description, on the other hand, satisfied the general feeling Cézanne shared with his contemporaries that the old romantic poetry was too remote and refined, lacking, as Cézanne might have said, “quelque chose dans l’estomac.” In his earlier reading of the poem, perhaps what appealed to C6zanne was the almost vindictive tone of the poet who addresses his companion as his “soul,” his “angel,” but nonetheless concludes by reminding her that she too will one day be such putrid ordure. A certain savage tone had invaded one of his own verses that recalls Baudelaire’s. On the back of a sketch for his Homage to Delacroix, probably around 1875, Cézanne had echoed Baudelaire’s acrid ironies in a scrawled verse: Here is the young woman with rounded buttocks How nicely she stretches out in the middle of the meadow Her supple body, spendidly extended, The adder is not more sinuously curved. And the beaming sun gently casts A few golden rays on this lovely meat.

The last line, reminiscent of Baudelaire, served to call Cézanne himself to order, to preserve him from the emotional ravages of a surplus of tenderness.

Yet Baudelaire’s poem, as Cézanne certainly knew later, was important in another, more philosophical sense. The message of Victor Hugo, relayed to him through “The Unknown Masterpiece,” was that everything in nature, even the grotesque, must be reckoned with by the artist. Baudelaire confirms Hugo’s attitude, but goes further. In a stanza which must certainly have addressed itself especially to Cézanne, Baudelaire, after having described the teeming world of flies and larvae in the dead horse’s belly, a world which “gave out a strange music, like flowing water and wind,” continues: The forms faded and were no more than a dream,   A sketch slow to come On the forgotten canvas, and which the artist completes   Only by memory.

In his later years, these lines probably summoned for Cèzanne his struggle both with nature and the nature of painting. Once having perceived the forms—all those miniscule details amongst which Cézanne foraged for the essences—he too found his sketch slow to come. Painting, quite often, struck him as no more than a dream, or “chimerical.” All the while, during his middle period, when he was painstakingly developing his method, restraining his hand and peering at nature until, as he said, his eyeballs seemed afire, he bore the dark lesson of “Une Charogne” in mind. His alternately exalted and disconsolate remarks late in his life at times could have resolved themselves in Baudelaire’s final line: “I have kept the form and the divine essence of my decomposed loves.” Finally, Baudelaire’s insight, and Cézanne’s, deposited both artists in that realm, sometimes called objective, in which a heroic and unflinching gaze at the unthinkable results in a vision of the universe. While Cézanne’s vision was intensifying durning the last years, the young poet Rilke was reacting similarly. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge he wrote about Baudelaire and “Une Charogne”: “What should he have done after what happened to him? It was his task to see in this terrible thing, seeming to be only repulsive, that existence which is valid among all that exists. Choice or refusal there is none.”


For all his belief in Porbus’ opinion that a painter should meditate only with the brush, Cézanne remained a spiritually uneasy man. Like Frenhofer, he was a man of doubt, “searching higher and further.” His need to reconcile discrete elements and to create a totality is obvious in his last paintings, in which his emotional intensity, moving from fearful darkness to the light of his realization, brings him to the threshold of the Baudelairean conception of universal correspondences. In his last years Cézanne sought increasingly to realize relationships of real things—that is, in their materiality—in terms of their myriad relationships, or correspondences. Draperies corresponded to mountains, skies to waters, walls to skies. In the end, Cézanne’s forms were only there to he related, or realized. In his late paintings of the Chateau Noir, the equation of sky to ground is deliberately emphasized by bringing the greens of the foreground into the sky. This version in the Jacques Koerfer collection has a rhyming scheme of both color and shape that courses over the entire canvas. Details such as foliage, tree trunks, windows remain merged in the tapestried surface while the precious “air” that Cézanne so highly valued circulates in literally empty spaces where the white of the canvas elides the forms. This painting led Adrian Stokes to rhapsodize: “Certainly this Château Noir picture and some of the last landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire display the original Dionysiac, stubborn fire at the height of Apollonian splendor. In the representation of the steeply-treed chgarateau capped by the summit of Mont Sainte-Victoire we may feel there are present the potent domes and deep-set grottoes of an ageless romance.” (Cézanne by Adrian Stokes, The Faber Gallery, n.d.)

Stokes’ invocation of the Dionysiac element in Cézanne’s final years, with its suggestion of struggle toward the light of Apollonian splendor, is most appropriate. Not only was Cézanne re-casting his vision of the universe in the late works, but he was struggling with the paradoxes Frenhofer had succumbed to. His self-sustained idealism, which never permitted him to forsake the notion that there was a “higher and further” led him to conceive of paintings themselves as descriptive of a universe in which all is related and held within a rhyming scheme that transcends even vision. The “deep set grottoes of an ageless romance” that Stokes found in the Château Noir painting appeared everywhere, even in the late stilllifes. The mysteries that all painters experience when they try to place forms, or objects, in the illusionary space of painting, when they try to locate the distances from here to there, emerge in these tremendous late works. The metaphors are complex. In-Still Life With Teapot (Cardiff) the long waves of the rug in the Still Life With Apples and Peaches become a host of forms. It is like a rampart, like a rock wall in Bibemus quarry, like one of the abstract draperies in Delacroix’s paintings as it moves against the crepuscular light of the background. Above all, it forms a deep grotto or nest isolating the pitcher in its own imaginary space, and it tunnels back as the fruits recede into a deep space. The vast distance between pitcher and bowl is filled with daring allusions. Seeking the depths, the Dionysiac fire, as Stokes says, Cézanne has stepped beyond the limits of his intense observation, making a universe more “real” in its idealism than anything he could have achieved during his middle years. There are numerous testimonies from his old age supporting this idealist interpretation of his use of the word “realization.” Among those who reported on Cézanne’s struggle with his vision was the young Joachim Gasquet who, although often considered unreliable in his transcriptions of Cézanne’s conversations, can probably be believed in his description of Cézanne’s gesture characterizing the “realized” image. Cézanne held his hands far apart, very slowly brought them together, linked them, folded them tightly and said: “This is what we must reach . . . there mustn’t be a stitch too loose . . . If I have the least distraction, the least obstruction, above all, if I interpret too much one day, if a theory today brings me something that contradicts that of the day before, if I think while painting, if I intervene, Bang! Everything falls apart (tout le camp).” His search in the last decade brought him back to his earlier perceptions, but they are now intensified. His attitude toward color, for instance, shifts perceptibly in the late landscapes. Where before an orderly succession of light tones moved rhythmically across his surface, in the late works there are deeper sonorities and more concern with chiaroscuro contrasts. He now found contrasts in the valleys, woods, and mountains that had never been so pronounced, or so abstract, and yet had never before resulted in such an emphatic overall harmony. This ideal had been posited by Delacroix and had stood before Cézanne all his life. Baudelaire had frequently discussed color in terms that Delacroix had initiated, and his conclusions were not far from Cézanne’s own: “Let us suppose a beautiful expanse of nature, where there is full licence for everything to be as green, red, dusty, or iridescent as it wishes; where all things, variously coloured in accordance with their molecular structure, suffer continual alteration through the transposition of shadow and light; where the workings of latent heat allow no rest, but where everything is in a state of perpetual vibration which causes lines to tremble and fulfills the law of eternal and universal movement. . . . According as the daystar alters its position, tones change their values, but, always respecting their natural sympathies and antipathies, they continue to live in harmony by making reciprocal concessions . . . for with Nature, form and colour are one.”

To reach the state of harmony, despite the maddening shifts he observed from moment to moment when he was painting sur le motif, Cézanne increasingly resorted to nondescriptive, or abstract means. In Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Les Lauves (Basel) he masses his strokes in the foreground where the valley is inflected with the shadows of dark greens and violets. These masses, with their occasional detached vertical strokes, move upward as though in a flux of their own to the crest of the mountain. There, there is an absence, a floating ambiguous air of no form which concedes to a sky in which the blues and greens of below resume their pulsating. Undoubtedly the endless ambiguities here (the illusion of depth checked by the immediacy of the overall pattern of tones) were reflections of Cézanne’s intense gazing. For him to disembarrass himself of doubt he could only reach the kind of attentive trance that Balzac considered the optimal creative condition—the trance that was a second sight.

Cézanne’s instinctive mistrust of the tricks of intellectualism spared him much, but on the other side was his mistrust of the frivolous acceptance of mere appearances. In Frenhofer’s example he sought the mystery of total attention which he hoped would transport him to the realm of unity. His obeisance to “temperament” or “primary force” led him to admire those artists who, like Frenhofer, could remain solely within the dream of their ongoing work. Cézanne held Balzac’s contradictions in suspension in his memory when, for instance, he described how the intervention of a theory could spoil a day’s work. Here he reflects the early 19th-century regard for enthusiasm which embraced the notion of intuitive quickness, direct response, and organic development. From Goethe’s advice that painters should paint, not talk, to Gautier’s theory of the artist as pure plastician, the romantic view of the artist as the unmediated creator prevailed. Cézanne never forgot Frenhofer’s single-minded devotion to his ideal and his priestly rituals. In his old age he often referred to the sacrifices in terms of everyday life that the true painter must make, and in this, too, he held to his youthful ideals. In the album he had cited as his favorite lines of poetry Alfred de Vigny’s refrain in “Moïse”: “Lord, you have made me strong and solitary Let me sleep the sleep of the earth.”

Vigny’s sober vision of Moses, lamentably remote from the possibilities of ordinary life, yet charged with carrying on toward a promised land he knows he cannot enter, seems to have moved Cézanne throughout his life. Vigny’s Moses is a parable of the artistic outcast, tenacious and alone, as the early 19th-century poets invariably saw him. Cézanne saw himself as a tragic Moses at times and sadly asked the rhetorical question at the end: will I be permitted to enter the promised land or will I be like Moses? Cézanne’s familiarity with the Old Testament would have reminded him that the Lord tells Moses he shall see the promised land with his eyes but shall not go thither. And fearfully he contemplated a fate such as Frenhofer’s. Like Frenhofer, who spent ten years on his vision, Cézanne spent more than ten years on his “Bathers” and never felt he had completed it. Again and again he returned to the large canvas, sometimes, like Frenhofer, feeling he had “confirmed his theory” in the working, sometimes feeling he had made an heroic failure. Working only from memory, Cézanne faltered and doubted. But he also felt onrushes of despair as he confronted nature itself and acknowledged the eternal divergence between the rendition of his sense impressions and his perception, or mental image. The profusion of psychological encounters, as he gazed outward, often seemed to Cézanne beyond comprehension. He suffered in his methodical process of trancelike scanning from the chaos of successive perceptions. The troubling problem of choice never diminished. Yet Cézanne held fast to his philosophic premise that the world in its overwhelming diversity was nonetheless reducible to a universe in paint. His empirical process constantly led him beyond empiricism. Increasingly he sought analogues for his sense of underlying unities. In the watercolors of the rocks above the Château Noir, he found metaphors. He could satisfy his craving for order in remarking the horizontal formations of the greater blocks of stone, and he could satisfy his old need for the baroque expressive surface in the curving irregularities of his rock wall. But he went further. He explored the bizarre effects of inverted weights. His rocks sometimes seem suspended in space or ascending with the lightness of balloons. They sometimes recall the convex forms of the buttocks in his bathers, and sometimes they dissolve in a system of lights and shadows. They, like the oranges and apples, submit to laws invented by the painter himself, laws which no longer, in the late works, derive only from the experience of seeing, but also from the poetic ideals Cézanne always retained.


To the first question in “Mes Confidences” asking what is your favorite color Cézanne had replied “general harmony.” To the question: what seems to you the ideal of earthly happiness, he had answered “To have a belle formule” and to the question: what do you consider nature’s masterpiece, he answered “Her infinite diversity.” In these replies Cézanne affirmed his solidarity with the generation Balzac had described. The search for an abstract unity or harmony that would somehow show itself through the hieroglyphs of nature remained for Cézanne the worthiest ideal. In his letter to Roger Marx in 1905, Cézanne had restated his position, saying that with the temperament of a painter and an ideal of art— that is to say, a conception of nature. . . . The conception of nature, which is not the same as nature itself, was for Cézanne the ultimate goal. In building his compositions, he was building a philosophy, a view of the world, a method of decoding the universe. He told Gasquet: “Everything we see is dispersed and disappears. Nature is always the same but nothing remains of it, nothing of what we see.” He felt increasingly that with his temperament and his conception of nature he could restore the continuity, the underlying harmony without sacrificing “the appearances of all its changes”—the paradox which he never ceased trying to resolve. When he painted the rocks, fissures, caves, dells, forest enclosures, nests (those cavities containing the pots and fruits in his still lifes for instance), he sought their opposite in the spaces which could not be contained in objects alone.”Always it is the sky, the things without limits that attract me” he wrote to Victor Choquet. The marked stress on complex rhythms in the late works shows him searching out an absolute metaphor. Finally, he expressed in paint what various poets and philosophers had posited in words: the notion of universal analogy, with its concomitant principle of reciprocity. From Fourier, whose first rule was absolute doubt and whose doctrine of universal analogy must have nourished Baudelaire’s, to Balzac, who found his source in Swedenborg, to Cézanne’s contemporary, Mallarme, French thinkers had kept the idea alive. Cézanne cherished Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne” for its bitter and definitive exposition of the doctrine. The dissolution of living matter which is transformed again into living matter was an experience Cézanne knew firsthand: “Everything we see is dispersed and disappears.” Only Baudelaire’s poem, and Cézanne’s paintings, his “realizations,” can arrest the universal flux. Cézanne’s conclusion is explicit in his watercolor studies of skulls. They represent mortality to him as to everyone else, but more, they are his parallel to “Une Charogne.” In the Three Skulls (Art Institute of Chicago) the flowered rug on which they are grouped is deliberately rendered with the same shapes as the hollows in the skull. Flowers and cranial cavities are finally in a rhyming scheme, a system of analogy that is endowed at its core with his meaning.

To use the term “a system of analogy” is not to say that Cézanne ceded to the finality of a system, or even that he had finally, as he had yearned, found a belle formule. But increasingly toward the end of his life he yielded to the impulse of abstraction. His sense of drama reasserted itself, and he expressed his vision in the teetering rocks at Bibemus quarry, in the shivering trees and turbid skies adorning Mont Sainte Victoire.

In the end the world finally began to resemble his feelings, his deepest, most tremulous feelings, and after all the years of prudent restraint and careful checking, Cézanne would find the visual equivalent to Goethe’s mysterious announcement that “naught is inside, naught is outside. For that within is also without.” In his very last paintings, particularly the watercolor study and oil of Le Cabanon de Jourdan, what Baudelaire would have called the “musicality” of the painting is its most prominent trait. Cézanne renders the trees in a hectic vibrato that echoes rhythmically through the sky. He rhymes door and chimney, path and sky. He eliminates, through the use of broad blocks of color, his customary wealth of foreground detail in favor of the abstract whole. The chimney, like a tower, points like an arrow into the sky, but its base is curiously eroded by an emphatic patch of blue—the environment dissolving the object or solid form. Despite the suggestion that air and light can make a solid like a chimney give way, the abstract character of the musical beat triumphs. Totality or harmony, Cézanne’s early ideal, is achieved.

Here he posits a universe, and it is a universe that has a curiously spherical shape. The certitude Cézanne sought would gradually reveal itself in his conception of nature which he thought of in terms of rondeur. He had always remembered Frenhofer’s lecture in which he said that “Nature provides a succession of rounded outlines that run into one another,” and he had trained his eyes to discern the roundness in nature to the degree that he said his eyeball had become convex. But toward the end, the convexity that he found wherever he looked in nature was no longer tied to specific shapes, but became his ideal vision of the world—an abstraction. He had sensed his way to Pascal’s idea that “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” In his late years Cézanne began to knit his canvases for a total, slightly convex effect, as though to reflect the nature of the earth itself. He entered a painterly metaphysics, what Gaston Bachelard called the phenomenology of roundness. Bachelard calls this sense of roundness a cosmicizing action, and says of certain poets that they know “that when a thing becomes isolated, it becomes round, assumes a figure of being that is concentrated upon itself.” In the late works, a strong tendency to condensation, producing a screenlike character, appears, much as in dreams; spaces are condensed. Cézanne’s revery articulates itself in such paintings as Bend in Forest Road (Bakwin) where the tapestried blue of sky, inflected with the crenellated rhythm of an ambiguous rampart, filters down through a wall of vertical trees of the sun-flecked bending (but strangely up-tilted) road. This screen of sky, trees, and light is in turn rounded off and given that slight convexity that Cézanne told his son he perceived in all bodies in space. The painting conforms to Bachelard’s insights and typifies the abstracted, dreaming gaze of the old Cézanne. His meditations, at the end, brought him intimations of a parallel world. He had deferred to Frenhofer’s vision of an intimate knowledge of form: Unvanquished painters, Frenhofer had said, persevere until nature is driven to show itself to them all naked and in its true guise. Cézanne had found its true guise, as he wrote in 1897 to Gasquet: “Art is a harmony which runs parallel with nature.” And he was quoted as having said, “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” (A curious parallel to Rimbaud’s “on me pense.”)

If there is always, in Cézanne, a complex and not easily discernible web of emotions, the late brooding quality visible in certain paintings must not be separated from a lifetime of nervous meditations. He was a man of passion, and passion, as Balzac indicated in the important fable of Frenhofer, overtakes, consumes, but also builds. Cézanne’s romantic faith, layered over the years, bursts forth at the end. But so do questions, and feelings of deep uneasiness. He agreed with Balzac on the one hand: “I am convinced that the span of life is in relation to the force that the individual can oppose to thought; the basis is temperament.” But he could not, for all that, banish thought as the underlying principle of all art.

These flourishing emotions can be read in the portraits of Cézanne’s last year. The three portraits called portraits of the gardener Vallier are surely spiritual self-portraits. In them Cézanne returns to the palette of his youth—deep bottle greens, blues, and earth colors. The sitter wears a visored cap that shadows brooding eyes, eyes that suggest the dark, inward reveries Cézanne might have observed both in Rembrandt’s self-portraits and in the figures that Baudelaire discussed in Delacroix’s paintings, or might have remembered from “The Unknown Masterpiece.”

If the transfixed eyes in these late portraits can be read, they speak of Cézanne’s perpetual anxiety, his fear as he neared, again and again, the abstract abyss.

“Now being old, nearly 70 years, the sensations of color which give the light are for me the reason for the abstractions which do not allow me to cover my canvas entirely nor to pursue the delineations of objects where their points of contact are fine and delicate; from which it results that my image or picture is incomplete.” (To Bernard, 1905)

This letter has been variously interpreted but remains ambiguous. In the late paintings there are in fact many white passages indicating that Cézanne’s idea of the “passage” had altered over the years. When he first speaks of the “passage” he seems to mean the gradation of light tone as the eye follows the curving contours of an object and reaches its limit in a vibration of air. Later the “passage” takes on the connotations of an abstract system. In the last watercolors, the shaped white absences are necessary abstraction. They are the vision, the ideal, held in the imagination as the hand and eye seek equivalences. The tension between idea and act, always important to Cézanne and maintained deliberately, finds resolution in these absences lighted by both the mind and hand. “Everything,” he wrote to Camoin in 1903, “especially in art, is theory developed and applied in contact with nature . . . . This is the most honest letter I have yet written to you.”

And yet, he could see himself as Frenhofer, and tremble as he sensed that he neared an absolute. Many of his last letters suggest that he stubbornly persisted with his empirical method only because he felt himself moving closer to the impossible ideal that had rendered Frenhofer helpless. Only when he was rereading Baudelaire, and painting the free and emotional late works, did he seek out the passages in which Baudelaire echoes the implicit warning in “The Unknown Masterpiece”? Such passages as:

“By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable . . . This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the first woman before the fall of man.”


“But just as there is no perfect circumference, the absolute ideal is a betise


“Absolute, eternal beauty does not exist, or rather, it is only an abstraction skimmed from the general surface of different forms of beauty. The particular element in each form of beauty comes from the emotions and as we have our own particular emotions, we have our own form of beauty.”

Like Frenhofer, Cézanne had begun with convictions drawn from his culture and struggled thereafter to make his experiences and his principles coincide. Frenhofer’s tragic error always stood before him. Cézanne never reached his dearest hope—the hope of certainty.


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