“There are two things in painting, vision and mind, and they should work in unison. As a painter, one must try to develop them harmoniously: vision, by looking at nature; mind, by ruling one’s senses logically, thus providing the means of expression.” – Paul Cézanne
In the 1890s Paul Cézanne became mesmerized by the way reflections appeared in running rivers near his home in Provence, intrigued by the way the endless motion of the water along with the shifting sunlight continuously changed the angularity of objects’ appearance. Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau, which comes to auction in Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale (12 November, New York) wonderfully encapsulates this fascination: a striking landscape from the early 1890s, it exemplifies the artist’s unrivaled dexterity as a painter and is among the works that would have a pivotal influence the development of 20th-century art in the decades that followed.
"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."
When painting such river scenes, Cézanne’s preferred working method was to set up his easel by a river, where the natural horizontals and verticals created a preset structure for the picture plane. As such, many of these works including Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau, 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.”1
"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."
Most evident in this work is Cézanne’s exploration of his non finito aesthetic. The artist eschewed the belief that a canvas need be fully marked for a work to be considered “finished," rather only that the work need carry out the intent of the artist. In Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau the unpainted areas of the canvas merge foreground with background, visually connecting the unpainted sky with the areas of the unpainted river. The mind’s eye is allowed then to wander between the two in a way that reinforces what would be the distorted mirror-image of the land in the water.
Throughout, varying densities of color are employed to delineate the composition, distinguishing the riverbank from the river and the trees from the buildings they conceal. Towards the outer-edges of the scenes, the brushstrokes become increasingly cursory, creating a vivacious sense of movement. The “motif" — as Cézanne referred to his subject-matter—appears to dissipate into the canvas itself. The palette is reduced to a combination of blue, green and orange tones and the application of paint is modulated with great subtlety; broad, dense brushstrokes for the riverbank and river become sparser with an airiness that suggests sunlight dispersing amid the foliage and offsetting the houses.
“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," noted Curator Joseph Rishel. "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.”2
A remarkable step toward abstraction, Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau also holds a distinguished 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. By 1936 the painting was sold to Joseph Winterbotham, business magnate of the late 19th century, who then bequeathed the work to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954, where it has remained until present day. Winterbotham’s extensive generosity to the Art Institute of Chicago was central to enabling the Museum to build an esteemed collection of modern art. Now coming to auction Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau presents the rare opporunity to aquire a work by such a pivotal artist from an esteemed museum collection. Arbres et maisons au bord de l'eau will be on view at Sotheby's New York galleries beginning on 2 November along with other Impressionist & Modern Art highlights.
1. B. Schwarz, Finished Unfinished Cézanne, Vienna, 2000, p. 315.
2. Cézanne (exhibition catalogue), Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, pp. 193 and 217.