Skip to content

Pyramid Of Skulls Paul Cezanne Analysis Essay

Synopsis

Paul Cézanne was the preeminent French artist of the Post-Impressionist era, widely appreciated toward the end of his life for insisting that painting stay in touch with its material, virtually sculptural origins. Also known as the "Master of Aix" after his ancestral home in the South of France, Cézanne is credited with paving the way for the emergence of twenthieth-century modernism, both visually and conceptually. In retrospect, his work constitutes the most powerful and essential link between the ephemeral aspects of Impressionism and the more materialist, artistic movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and even complete abstraction.

Key Ideas

Unsatisfied with the Impressionist dictum that painting is primarily a reflection of visual perception, Cézanne sought to make of his artistic practice a new kind of analytical discipline. In his hands, the canvas itself takes on the role of a screen where an artist's visual sensations are registered as he gazes intensely, and often repeatedly, at a given subject.

Cézanne applied his pigments to the canvas in a series of discrete, methodical brushstrokes as though he were "constructing" a picture rather than "painting" it. Thus, his work remains true to an underlying architectural ideal: every portion of the canvas should contribute to its overall structural integrity.

In Cézanne's mature pictures, even a simple apple might display a distinctly sculptural dimension. It is as if each item of still life, landscape, or portrait had been examined not from one but several angles, its material properties then recombined by the artist as no mere copy, but as what Cézanne called "a harmony parallel to nature." It was this aspect of Cézanne's analytical, time-based practice that led the future Cubists to regard him as their true mentor.

Most Important Art

Table, Napkin, and Fruit (A Corner of the Table) (1895-1900)

After studying Dutch and French Old Master still life painting at the Louvre and other Parisian galleries, Cézanne formulated his own semi-sculptural approach to still lifes. Typically strewn across an upturned tabletop, Cézanne's pears, peaches, and other pictorial elements seem at once to rest on a solid, wooden plank and yet float across the surface of the canvas like a new kind of calligraphy. As if to press home that point, Cézanne typically includes chairs, wooden screens, water pitchers, and wine bottles to suggest that the gaze of the viewer rise vertically up the canvas, rather than plunge deep within any implied corner of a real kitchen.

Read More ...

Paul Cézanne Artworks in Focus:

Paul Cézanne Overview Continues Below

Biography

Childhood

Paul Cézanne was born in 1839 in the town of Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. His father was a wealthy lawyer and banker who strongly encouraged Paul to follow in his footsteps. Cézanne's eventual rejection of his authoritative father's aspirations led to a long, problematic relationship between the two, although, notably, the artist remained financially dependent on his family until his father's death in 1886.

He was extremely close friends with Émile Zola, a writer born in Aix as well, and who would later become one of the greatest literary figures of his generation. The adventurous Cezanne and Zola were part of a small circle that called themselves "The Inseperables". They moved to Paris together in 1861.

Early Training

Cézanne was largely a self-taught artist. In 1859, he attended evening drawing classes in his native town of Aix. After moving to Paris, Cézanne twice attempted to enter the École des Beaux-Arts, but was turned down by the jury. Instead of acquiring professional training, Cézanne made frequent visits to the Musée de Louvre, where he copied works by Titian, Rubens, and Michelangelo. He also regularly visited the Académie Suisse, a studio where young art students could draw from the live model for a very modest monthly membership fee. While at the Académie, Cézanne met fellow painters Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir, who were at that time also struggling artists, but who would soon comprise the founding members of the nascent Impressionist movement.

The early oils of Cézanne were executed in a rather somber palette. The paint was often applied in thick layers of impasto, adding a sense of heaviness to already solemn compositions. His early painting indicated a focus on color in favor of well-delineated silhouettes and perspectives preferred by the French Academy and the jury of the annual Salon where he continuously submitted his works. All of his submissions, however, were refused. The artist also travelled regularly back to Aix to secure funding from his disapproving father.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Paul Cézanne Biography Continues

The year 1870 marked a crucial shift in Cézanne's painting which was occasioned by two factors: the artist's move to L'Estaque in the South of France to avoid the military draft, and his closer association with one of the most distinguished young Impressionists - Camille Pissarro. Cézanne was fascinated with the Mediterranean landscape of L'Estaque, with its abundance of sunlight, and the vibrancy of colors. Meanwhile, Pissarro proved instrumental in persuading Cézanne to adopt a brighter palette, as well as to abandon the heavy and ponderous impasto technique in favor of smaller and livelier brushstrokes. In L'Estaque, Cézanne executed a series of landscapes dominated by the architectonic forms of the rural houses, the dazzling blues of the sea, and the vivacious greens of the foliage.

In 1872, Cézanne returned to Paris, where his son Paul was born. His mistress, Hortense Fiquet, would finally become Madame Cézanne in 1886, notably just following the artist's father's death. Cézanne painted over forty portraits of his companion, as well as several enigmatic portraits of their son.

In 1873, Cézanne exhibited in the Salon des Réfuses, the notorious show of artists who had been refused by the official Salon (he counted himself among a circle that included Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro, among others). The critics slammed the avant-garde artists, which apparently hurt Cézanne deeply. In the next decade he mostly painted away from Paris, in either Aix or L'Estaque, and he no longer participated in unofficial group exhibitions.

Mature Period

Cézanne's experience with painting from nature and rigourous experimentation led him to develop his own approaches to art. He strove to depart from the portrayal of the transient moment, long favored by the Impressionists; instead, Cézanne sought true and permanent pictorial qualities of objects around him. According to Cézanne, the subject of the painting was first to be "read" by the artist through the understanding of its essence. Then, in the second stage, this essence must be "realized" on a canvas through forms, colors, and their spatial relations. The colors and forms thus became the dominant elements of his compositions, completely freed from the rigid rules of perspective and paint application as promoted by the Academy.

Depicting reality as such was never Cézanne's primary objective. In his own words, it was "something other than reality" that he endeavored to reveal. In the 1880's, Cezanne executed a large number of still lifes, completely reinventing the genre in the two-dimensional mode. The central feature of these still lifes was the crucial shift of attention from the objects themselves, to the forms and colors that were potentially communicated by their surfaces and contours.

Cezanne's portraits, including an extensive body of self-portraits, exhibit the same set of traits. The compositions are vividly impersonal, for it was not the sitter's character that Cezanne struggled to depict but the formal and coloristic possibilities of the human body and its interior nature.

Late Period and Death

In the last decade of his life, Cézanne limited his artistic pursuits almost exclusively to two pictorial motifs. One was the depiction of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, a dramatic mountain that dominated the parched and stony landscape at Aix. The other was the final synthesis of nature and the human body in a series of so-called Bathers (nudes depicted frolicking in a landscape). The later versions of the Bathers were becoming increasingly abstract in regard to how form and color seemed to fuse together on the canvas.

After contracting pneumonia, Paul Cézanne died in his familial house in Aix on October 22, 1906. The last decade of his life had been marred by the development of diabetes and severe depression, which contributed toward alienating the artist from most of his friends and family.


Paul Cezanne Picture

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cezanne in the front his painting The Bathers

Legacy

When looking at Cézanne's late work, it is impossible to miss the emergence of a unique artistic approach. Cézanne offered a new way of comprehending the world through art. With his reputation evolving steadily in the late years of his life, an increasing number of young artists fell under the influence of his innovative vision. Among them was the young Pablo Picasso, who would soon steer the Western tradition of painting into yet another new and utterly unprecedented direction. It was Cézanne who taught the new generation of artists to liberate form from color in their art, thus creating a new and subjective pictorial reality, not merely a slavish imitation. The influence of Cézanne continued well into the 1930s and 1940s, when a new artistic manner was coming to fruition - that of Abstract Expressionism.

Paul Cezanne Biography

The painting Homage to Cezanne (1900) by Maurice Denis. From left: Odilon Redon, Edouard Vuillard, critic Andre Mellario, dealer Ambraise Vollard, Maurice Denis, and Paul Serusier, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard, and Marthe Denis

Pyramid of Skulls is a c. 1901 oil painting by FrenchPost-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne. It depicts four human skulls stacked in a pyramidal configuration. Painted in a pale light against a dark background, Pyramid of Skulls is exceptional in the artist's oeuvre, for "in no other painting did Cézanne place his objects so close to the viewer."[1] For art historian Françoise Cachin, "these bony visages all but assault the viewer, displaying an assertiveness very much at odds with the usual reserve of domestic still-life tableaux."[2]

Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Cézanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: "For me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous"; "As for me, I'm old. I won't have time to express myself"; and "I might as well be dead."[1] It is possible that the death of his mother on October 25, 1897—she had been a protective and supportive influence—accelerated his meditations on mortality, a subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years.[3] Cézanne's health started to deteriorate at the same time.[3] The dramatic resignation to death informs a number of still life paintings he made between 1898 and 1905 of skulls. These works, some painted in oils and some with watercolor, are more subtle in meaning yet also more visually stark than the traditional approach to the theme of vanitas.[3]

Cézanne's interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been drawn to the skulls' volumetric forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed "How beautiful a skull is to paint!"[3] They also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: "the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of the artist's portraits."[2] In both sets of works the mass of the cranium is emphasized: in the self-portraits the lower half of his face is obscured by his beard, while the skulls lack lower jaws altogether. In both series attention is focused on the round pate and eye sockets.[4] There would have been further reason for the subject to interest Cézanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Cézanne was a devout Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists' studios.[3] Indeed, the contents of Cézanne's studio were known to include "three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross" near one another on the mantelpiece.[3]

Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled:[3]

On his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony brainpans to which the eyeholes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by Verlaine:

For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death's heads.

Pyramid of Skulls was painted at Cézanne's studio in Aix, where he worked prior to his move into the new Les Lauves studio in September 1902.[2] A visitor to the studio in July 1902 wrote: "In his bedroom, on a narrow table in the middle, I noticed three human skulls facing one another, three beautiful polished ivories. He spoke of a very good painted study that was somewhere in the attic. I wanted to see it." But Cézanne could not find the key to the garret, and blamed his maid for its misplacement.[2]

A watercolor study, Three Skulls, at the Art Institute of Chicago, is similar in composition, though relatively more graceful in handling.[5] The skull studies would serve as inspiration to 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.[1] Today the skulls themselves remain in Cézanne's studio outside of Aix-en-Provence.

Skull paintings[edit]

  • Still Life with Skull, Candle and Book, 1865-1867, Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland. An earlier painting, more consistent with the traditional theme of vanitas.

  • Young Man with a Skull, 1896-1898

  • Three Skulls on a Rug, c. 1904, Private Collection

References[edit]

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]

Paul Cézanne. Pyramid of Skulls, oil on canvas, c. 1901, 37 cm × 45.5 cm. Private collection.
  1. ^ abcAdriani, 254
  2. ^ abcdCachin, et al, 491
  3. ^ abcdefgCachin, et al, 490
  4. ^Cachin, et al, 492-493
  5. ^Cachin, et al, 493