Cézanne and the Master Painters: A Dream of Italy

From Italy to France and Back Again

September 30, 2020By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
"Still Life: Pears and Green Apples" (c. 1873), by Paul Cezanne. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski
“Still Life: Pears and Green Apples” (c. 1873), by Paul Cezanne. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Hervé Lewandowski

We often forget how much France owes to Italy. Would French cuisine have earned its reputation as the world’s best if Catherine de’ Medici hadn’t brought Italian chefs with her when she crossed the Alps to marry Henry II? And would French châteaux be so impressively beautiful if François I hadn’t imported Italian artists (one of them being, of course, Leonardo) and artisans to decorate them? And now we learn from an unusual exhibition at the Musée Marmottan-Monet, “Cézanne et les Maîtres: Rêve d’Italie,” that Cézanne wouldn’t be Cézanne without the influence of Italian art.

The only catch is that Cézanne never went to Italy. The first part of the exhibition sets out to show “the degree to which Cézanne’s work grew out of the art of the Italian masters of the 16th and 17th centuries,” partly through his study of their work in museums and books (notably, Stendhal’s History of Painting in Italy) and partly through “the still-present antique inspiration” of his native Provence. “Italian masters,” by the way, is interpreted loosely here to include foreign painters who spent time in Italy, including El Greco, Jusepe de Ribera and Nicolas Poussin (especially admired by Cézanne).

What we are looking at are not direct copies but the influence of composition, lighting, colors, forms and atmosphere.

Left: "Descent from the Cross" (1580), by Tintoretto. © Photo Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola. Right: "The Strangled Woman" (1875-76), by Paul Cezanne. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Patrice Schmidt
Left: “Descent from the Cross” (1580), by Tintoretto. © Photo Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola. Right: “The Strangled Woman” (1875-76), by Paul Cezanne. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Patrice Schmidt

Tintoretto’s “Deploration of Christ” or Descent from the Cross (1580), for example, is compared with Cézanne’s “The Strangled Woman” (1875-76). The religious scene is transformed into a murder scene by Cézanne, who was fascinated by crime stories in his youth. The two works may not resemble each other at first glance, but the curators point out the structural similarity between the triangle formed by Nicodemus and the dangling arm of Christ’s body. Cézanne’s loosely painted version inverses the triangle, with the dead body now that of a strangled woman and the figure bending over her murderer.

"Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres" (c. 1625-28), by Nicolas Poussin. © National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
“Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres” (c. 1625-28), by Nicolas Poussin. © National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
"Pastorale" (1870), by Paul Cezanne. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski
“Pastorale” (1870), by Paul Cezanne. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

A number of examples point up similarities between works by Poussin – who lived and worked in Rome for most of his career – and Cézanne’s bathers. The exhibition offers a comparison between Poussin’s “Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres” (1625-28) and Cézanne’s “Pastorale” (1870) – note the self-portrait of the artist in the center of the painting – in the spacing and vertical and horizontal arrangement of the figures.

"Still Life" (1960), by Giorgio Morandi © Bridgeman Images/A. De Gregorio/De Agostini Picture Library © ADAGP, PARIS 2020
“Still Life” (1960), by Giorgio Morandi © Bridgeman Images/A. De Gregorio/De Agostini Picture Library © ADAGP, PARIS 2020

While Cézanne looked to the past of Italian painting, a number of 20th-century Italian painters looked to Cézanne as a model, making him “a link between the Italian Middle Ages and Renaissance and those of the 20th century… a bridge between tradition and modernity.”

As the Italian critic Margherita Sarfatti (an interesting figure: a Jew with socialist leanings who was a lover and biographer of Mussolini before World War II) wrote in 1920, “Cézanne can be found at the beginning of every path leading to modern painting” – although it is off the subject of Italy, we mustn’t forget that Cézanne’s fractured painting technique was a major inspiration for the Cubists.

Among the Italian painters cited here are Giorgio Morandi – the simplicity of whose still lifes and obsessive study of the same subject echo Cézanne’s paintings of apples and pears – Umberto Boccioni and Mario Sironi.

The beauty of the exhibition lies in the thread it traces through art history, from Italy to France and back again, while offering the always uplifting experience of seeing a number of Cézanne’s paintings.

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