Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
Will the apples fall off the table? Explore the tension between stability and imbalance in this late still life by Cezanne.
Many of Paul Cézanne's late still lifes depict complex arrangements whose artificial character underscores the artist's role as contriver. They are, however, very different from the seventeenth-century Dutch prototypes to which they are sometimes compared. Cézanne never aimed at illusionism, and his still-life compositions can be anthropomorphic, expressive of psychological tension, in ways never dreamt of by his Baroque predecessors.
The Basket of Apples exemplifies this effect. The theatrical tilt of the basket implies that the apples on the tabletop have rolled out of it; yet the way they huddle and nestle in the crumpled napkin suggests that they possess independent minds. The biscuits on a plate are carefully stacked, but they too seem animate, as if straining to take in the drama unfolding before them. The bottle—slightly askew and off center, teasingly close to stabilizing union with the picture's upper edge—presides over the scene like a dark sentinel. Poised between resolution and imbalance, sensation and ponderation, The Basket of Apples makes tangible the complex eye-mind interplay that determines visual experience.
Cézanne's grave attentiveness to this dynamic gives his art a philosophical cast, but the pleasures afforded by his robust color chords, lively touch, and sure compositional instincts make it seductive. Here, his considered juxtapositions of autumnal hues, like the resolutely disjointed table edges and intentionally "unfinished" contours, draw attention to the deliberative nature of art-making.
Cézanne's determination to recognize the provisional nature of perception derives from Impressionism, but his stress on the tension between optical sensation and aesthetic transformation sets him apart. In his mature work, he found beauty of a new kind in the inherently charged dialogue between contingency and contemplation, thereby facilitating the more radical break with realistic representation effected by the Cubists and other modernists in the early twentieth century.
An examination of Cezanne's dynamic composition of fruit and objects in this still life from the mid-1890s.
Paul Cezanne spent most of his working life in and around the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence and, partially as a result of his self-imposed isolation, was for many years all but unknown in Paris. In 1895, he was persuaded by the dealer Ambroise Vollard to have a one-man show in Paris. The exhibition, held at Vollard's popular gallery, was not an important financial success, but it had a profound effect on the history of French art. It was the first time in nearly twenty years that French artists who had heard about this painter from Provence could actually see his work. Basket of Apples was among the paintings selected by Cezanne and Vollard for inclusion in this exhibition. Like several of the other paintings in the exhibition, it was signed, most probably at the insistence of Vollard, who felt that an unsigned painting might be considered unfinished and, hence, would fail to sell. Cezanne grudgingly complied, and, for that reason, the paintings in the Vollard exhibition are among the few the artist actually signed.
Basket of Apples is among Cezanne's "baroque" still lifes painted in the late 1880's and 1890's. Its pictorial structure derives from seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes. Like the Dutch artists, Cezanne sought to establish a dynamic, asymmetrical arrangement of objects that are held in place only by the painter's compositional skills. Yet, where such an effect of imbalance was merely a compositional device of the Dutch painters, it was an essential element of Cezanne's conception of the still life. Cezanne recognized the fact that the artist is not bound to represent real objects in real space. He was able, therefore, to impart to everything a strength and relative position that could not possibly be duplicated in an actual studio arrangement.
Here, the basket filled with apples tilts improbably on a small base or stand, its contents held in check only by a bottle and a cloth, in whose complex, craggy folds lie many other pieces of fruit. The table, like virtually every one in a Cezanne still life, has four edges that cannot be aligned to form an exact rectangle. At the raised upper right corner of the table, the artist created a latticed "log-cabin" of the French pastry called dents de loup, contrasting the informal and unstable arrangement of the circular apples on the table with the architectonic stack of cookies. Both arrangements vie for dominance around the central form of the bottle, which, with its own silhouette shifting from left to right, acts as an anchor for a composition in endless flux. Thus, the balance that Cezanne achieved is a purely pictorial one: the actual arrangement of objects he painted in his studio could never have possessed the dynamism and tension with which it is endowed in Basket of Apples.