Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau encapsulates Cézanne’s artistic achievement and displays the brilliance that characterizes his best work. This striking landscape from the early 1890s exemplifies the artist’s unrivaled facility with the medium and is among the works that were to have a pivotal influence on the development of twentieth-century art.
Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau provides one with an insight into Cézanne’s distinctive artistic techniques. Beginning in the 1890s Cézanne became preoccupied with how the endless motion of water and redirection of sunlight continually changes the angularity of objects’ reflections. Cézanne’s preferred working method was to set up his easel by the water, where the natural horizontals and verticals created a preset structure for the picture plane. As such, many canvases, including the present work, show the river parallel to the land bank rather than at an oblique angle. Cézanne belied such linearity, however, with his distillation of the natural forms into geometric ones. Writing to his son in 1906, Cézanne explained, “Here, along the river, the motifs multiply. The same subject, seen from another angle offers a subject of the most compelling interest and so varied that I believe I could work for months without changing position, but by just leaning a little to the right and then a little to the left” (quoted in B. Schwarz, Cézanne: Finished–Unfinished (exhibition catalgoue), Kunstforum, Vienna, 2000, p. 315).
Most evident in the present work is Cézanne’s exploration of his non finito aesthetic. Cézanne eschewed the belief that a canvas need be fully marked for a work to be considered “finished.” Rather, Cézanne affirmed, the work need only carry out the intent of the artist. In Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau Cézanne utilized the unpainted areas of the canvas to merge foreground with background and visually connect the unpainted sky with the areas of the unpainted river, thereby allowing the mind’s eye to oscillate between the two and reinforce what would be the distorted mirror-image of the land in the water.
Of primary emphasis for the canvas is the varied density for the planes of color used to delineate the riverbank from the river and the trees from the man-made structures they conceal. The outer edges of the main pictorial focus are rendered with increasingly cursory swipes of the brush, creating a vivacious sense of movement as the “motif," as Cézanne referred to his subject-matter, appears to dissipate into the canvas itself. The artist reduced his palette to a combination of blue, green and orange tones while modulating the paint application with great subtlety; his broad, dense brushstrokes for the riverbank and river become sparser as he moved away from the center to create greater airiness and convey the dispelling sun amidst the foliage and offset house.
As Joseph Rishel has noted, “In the years around 1880, Cézanne developed ways of looking and painting—especially in his landscapes—that he was to spend the rest of his life refining. The key to this breakthrough was a novel approach to facture, the way pigment was applied to canvas...that liberated him from Impressionism. It allowed him to render landscape with remarkable sensuality and specificity, but, unlike the ambitious plein-air paintings of his contemporaries, it transformed the transient into something classical, structured, and serene” (Cézanne (exhibition catalogue), Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, pp. 193 & 217).
Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau has remarkable provenance. Having first belonged to Cézanne’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard, it was later purchased by the Bignou Gallery, the New York branch of Galerie Étienne Bignou, Paris. The painting was then sold by 1936 to Joseph Winterbotham, business magnate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who then bequeathed the work to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954, where it has remained until the present day. Mr. Winterbotham’s extensive generosity to the Art Institute of Chicago, in the form of donating works from his collection and a significant financial gift, enabled the museum to build one of the best collections of Modern art in the world.
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