Transforming Nature: The Watercolors in Cézanne and the Modern
According to the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, during Paul Cézanne’s later years it was not uncommon to discover watercolors he had discarded in the fields near Aix-en-Provence—scattered testimonials to the fine disregard the artist apparently displayed toward these sheets. Of the more than six hundred watercolors by his hand that survive today, the sixteen in the Pearlman Collection constitute one of the finest groups of Cézanne’s work in this exacting medium.
At the center of the exhibition Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection, this extraordinary assembly of probing and intimate watercolors demonstrates how Cézanne realized his transformative vision of nature. It is one of Henry Pearlman’s remarkable achievements as a collector that within the space of a little over two decades (1950–1972), he gathered together this panoramic cluster. These works cover a broad chronological and thematic range, beginning with one of Cézanne’s early romantic fantasies, the classically inspired Aeneas Meeting Dido at Carthage (ca. 1875), and culminating in the magisterial Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit (1906), probably one of the last works the artist painted before his death. In order to preserve the freshness of the colors and the brilliance of the paper, these light-sensitive works are rarely on view—as a group, they were last shown in 2002–3, in the Art Museum’s exhibition Cézanne in Focus, which was complemented by the first scholarly publication on the Pearlman Collection. The catalogue entries were primarily written by Princeton graduate students, whose examination of the watercolors resulted in new scholarship in the field of Cézanne studies, exemplifying one of the many ways in which the Pearlman Collection has played a vital role in the University setting since 1976.
Interspersed with several oil paintings in the central section of Cézanne and the Modern, the watercolors illuminate the essence of the artist’s exploratory process, as he stubbornly strove to capture the motif in front of him one brushstroke and pencil mark at a time—in the artist’s words, “without changing position but by leaning a little to the right and then to the left.” From the beginning, Cézanne broke with conventional watercolor practice, not filling in the graphite underdrawing in an illustrative manner but rather painting, as if in counterpoint, an independent composition of contours and patches, which merge to create an impression of solid forms and dense, dreamlike space. In doing so, he developed a dynamic and highly original dialogue between drawing and painting. Increasingly complex, they are not studies in the traditional sense of the term but more of a reconnaissance mission, creating for the viewer what has been aptly termed an “experience of optical oscillation”—produced as we shift back and forth between the overlapping drawn and painted portions.
Like most of Cézanne’s watercolors, those in the Pearlman Collection were apparently never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime—with one noteworthy exception. This is the vibrant Three Pears, executed relatively early in Cézanne’s career, when he was still using opaque watercolor, or gouache, which imparts a bold sensuality to the rounded forms. Bidding between the painters Renoir and Degas for this work was fierce when it was exhibited at the dealer Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in 1895. Degas emerged the victor after lots were drawn to resolve the matter. By comparison with the physicality of Three Pears, the objects in Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit dissolve into a shimmering web of vibrating lines and color patches that borders on the abstract.
A self-proclaimed “worshipper of Cézanne,” Henry Pearlman had a preference for the artist’s landscapes, as is reflected in the watercolors, many of which depict specific sites in the Provencal countryside. In addition to his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, one of Cézanne’s favorite subjects was a stone cistern surrounded by a shaded grove of trees on the grounds of the Chateau Noir. The exhibition’s juxtaposition of Cézanne’s two watercolors and one oil painting of this setting demonstrates not only the exquisite variation in the artist’s responses to the same motif but also the different ways in which he renders what he called “the envelope”—the diffusion of light and its unifying effect—with the different media. In contrast to the solidity suggested by the thickly layered oil paint, the translucent touches of watercolor on white paper produce an ephemeral character akin to that evoked by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke when describing a 1907 exhibition of Cézanne’s watercolors: “ . . . very light pencil outlines, and here and there, as if just for emphasis and confirmation, there’s an accidental scattering of color, a row of spots, wonderfully arranged and with a security of touch: as if mirroring a melody.” This inspired musical analogy would no doubt have appealed to Henry Pearlman, who described the effect of seeing one of the works in his collection as giving him “a lift, similar to the experience of listening to a symphonic orchestration of a piece well known and liked.”
Laura M. Giles
Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings