I want to astonish Paris with an apple,” announced Paul Cézanne, who, over the course of his life, painted more than 270 still lifes featuring the heavily symbolic fruit set among his other favored objects. Yet no exhibition has ever focused on this aspect of his career. “People have long recognized that they aren’t just inert renderings of quotidian objects,” says Benedict Leca, director of curatorial affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario. “They’re difficult pictures that have scared many. They’re palpably loaded with meaning, yet inscrutable.”
Now, 21 of those paintings will be in “The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne,” an exhibition running from June 22 to September 22 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and then traveling to the Art Gallery of Hamilton. This is a concise show, but it manages to explore the full gamut of Cézanne’s adventures with still life, ranging from his early dark and austere exercises in the genre to his lush assemblages of fruits and flowers and finally to his haunting late pictures of skulls. “He unmoors the objects from their traditional meanings,” Leca observes, adding, “Cézanne believed in the inner life of these everyday subjects, and he’s often doing several things at once. There’s the tactile paint handling; there’s both flatness and illusionism. He’s solid on the one hand, and yet he actively destabilizes on the other.”
Not included in the exhibition but illustrated in the catalogue is the early Still Life with Bread and Eggs (1865), which, to contemporary eyes, appears almost Chardin-esque in its earthy colors, stark simplicity, and focus on humble kitchen fare. Yet the painting was rejected by the Salon of 1866, as were other submissions in the years following, and the artist did not begin to find his audience and admirers until the first and third Impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and 1877 (the latter marked the first and most complete presentation to date of Cézanne’s still lifes). A slightly later work, included in the Barnes show, Still Life with Bottle, Glass, and Lemons from 1867–69, is a dark and dour exercise; a glutinous assemblage of pears, a sugar bowl, and blue cup from ca.1866 is nearly unidentifiable.
But by the mid-1870s we see Cézanne becoming Cézanne, as in Still Life: Flask, Glass, and Jug (ca. 1877). The awkward shapes, discrete touches of color, and roughly scumbled background, and the tension involved in depicting three-dimensional objects on a flat canvas, would launch artists as diverse as Matisse and Picasso in directions that still define the art of our times.
Though it may seem the most banal of genres (and in 19th-century France it ranked below the lofty subjects of landscape, portraiture, and history painting), still life, for Cézanne, offered a more radical approach to painting than did more traditional avenues. Its “manipulable elements were more readily composed into suggestive arrangements than any plein air vista or fickle portrait sitter,” Leca writes in his catalogue essay, “and it is for this reason that still lifes are often some of Cézanne’s most experimental works.”
Early critics, from Thadée Natanson to Roger Fry, saw the still lifes as key to the painter’s art. And in his lifetime, Cézanne’s peers recognized the importance of his exercises in the genre—not least of them, Manet, says Leca. “Cézanne had been known to various avant-garde artists as a freakish talent, but in 1895, the solo show organized by Vollard opened the eyes of many.” Degas, Gauguin, Cassatt, Renoir, Vuillard, and Pissarro (who owned nearly 20 of the artist’s paintings) were among his fans. As one critic noted after the Impressionist exhibition of 1874, and Leca records in the catalogue for the Barnes show, “To buy Cézanne is a means . . . to get oneself noticed, to fashion a unique advertisement for oneself.”
The fascination endures as artists from Picasso to Ellsworth Kelly to Rachel Harrison, Jessica Stockholder, and Christopher Williams have engaged with every aspect of Cézanne’s career. “There is no question that the 20/20 hindsight of art history has gone back in time to find what it wanted to find in Cézanne. When he’s painting his late works, he’s not thinking ‘I’m on my way to Cubism,’” Leca says. “But it was convenient for Picasso to look back at him; it was convenient for Jasper Johns.”
In 2009, the widely praised show “Cézanne and Beyond” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art made clear the artist’s breadth and influence right up to the present day. There were the obvious descendants—Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger—and quite a few surprises among contemporary artists, including Francis Alÿs and Brice Marden, whose canvas in that show, featuring three horizontal bands of gray-green and gray-blue, was inspired by Cézanne’s view of the Bay of Marseille. But the still lifes seem to hold a special appeal. The late artist Elizabeth Murray spoke of her early encounter with a still life with apples as representing “a real breakthrough” in the way she thought about painting, and Sherrie Levine has made computer-derived grids based on the still lifes, rendering Cézanne’s patient stroke-by-stroke engagement with his subjects completely abstract. Leca says the influence is apparent even in Cindy Sherman’s work. The deliberateness in the staging of her photographs, he points out, “relates to Cézanne’s own evidently deeply thought-through arrangement and restaging or repainting.”
For artists, Cézanne is “like the garage,” Leca adds. “You go in there and you find what you need.” And yet one of the reasons for our continuing enthrallment, he suggests, is the artist’s ability to take viewers to a realm beyond the mundane. “Cézanne invites you into an otherworldly place that suspends the conventional rules governing time, place, material, and meaning. He takes you to the Twilight Zone.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 84 under the title “Taking a Bite of Cézanne’s Apples.”