The Proof is in the Painting*: Looking Closely at Cézanne, Part 1 of 3

The Proof is in the Painting*: Looking Closely at Cézanne, Part 1 of 3

Room 9, south wall

I have the good fortune of joining the Conservation Department at the Barnes Foundation this summer as a graduate intern from the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State, SUNY. During my eight-week internship, my primary job is to carry out close examinations of paintings by Paul Cézanne. This is the beginning of a more long-term project to catalogue the current condition and history of each of the Barnes Foundation’s sixty-seven paintings by Cézanne.

My work coincides with the exhibition The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne, offering me a unique opportunity to contextualize my examinations of the Barnes’s Cézannes. Through comparison with his great still lifes, which have come to the Foundation this summer from all over the world, I can develop a broader understanding of his working methods and materials and the way they changed over the course of his career. Over the course of the summer, works by Cézanne are coming into the conservation lab for thorough examination and documentation. If you visit the Barnes and notice that your favorite Cézanne is off view, check back in a few days’ time. While perhaps disappointing in the short term, taking these works off view for close examination means that, in the long term, we will have a much better understanding of Cézanne as an artist.

Conservation lab

His work is widely considered a cornerstone of modern art. Countless twentieth-century artists, from Jasper Johns to Ellsworth Kelly, have publicly expressed the profound influence that Cézanne’s work has had on their own. Indeed, Cézanne’s style marked a distinct shift, not only from the illusionistic painters of the Academy in Paris, but also from the impressionists. Richard Shiff, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas at Austin writes that a “modern picture holds reality within its own surface, which never ceases to manifest its own physicality.” Thumb through the available literature on Cézanne and you will quickly see that it’s the material substance and touch of his paintings that first distinguished him as an artist. Unlike the impressionists, Cézanne didn’t seek to depict subtle effects of natural light or the “real” world. In fact, the realism of his paintings is not related to their images at all, but rather to their insistent painted surfaces, which he makes no effort to conceal.

The significance of his materials and characteristic paint handling makes Cézanne a nearly perfect subject for technical conservation research. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a stroll through one of my close examinations. By getting a clearer picture of the painting’s material structure, we might perhaps develop a better idea of just what makes Cézanne so very modern.


*In 1904, Cézanne wrote in a letter to artist Émile Bernard that the concrete “proof” of a painter’s sensory experience is to be found in the painting itself. 

Ensemble view, Room 9, south wall, (detail), Philadelphia, 2012.
View of conservation studio.

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