Nov 21st 2017

Cézanne’s Triumph

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

Paul Cézanne painted his uncle Dominique Aubert at least 9 times in 1866, when the artist was 27 years old. These portraits, four of which are in the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery, are not recognizable as works by Cézanne –which is to say that they look nothing like the mature paintings we think of as Cézannes. These early portraits were painted predominantly in black and white, with heavily encrusted paint slathered on with a palette knife (think Chaim Soutine, or late Lucian Freud). And they are all different: Dominique wears a hat in some, not in others; different clothes; his expressions are different; even the sizes of the paintings are different. Cézanne’s motive for painting his uncle so frequently is not known, but this was clearly not an exercise in replication. 


WikiArt Commons 

“Portrait of a Man in a Blue Cap (Uncle Dominique),” by Paul Cézanne (1866). 

What these paintings demonstrate is that for Cézanne, even before he had worked with Pissarro and learned the multiple lessons of Impressionism, painting involved repetition with experimentation. Even before Pissarro opened his eyes to nature and he found his true subject, Cézanne was by temperament an experimental artist, who worked by trial and error. His uncle was evidently among the first of his subjects who learned this at the expense of their own time (Ambroise Vollard later reported that he sat through 115 sessions for a portrait Cézanne considered unfinished).


WikiArt Commons

“Portrait of Uncle Dominique,” by Paul Cézanne (1866). 

Cézanne would later become a master of color, and would invent new methods of representing space, but all of his discoveries would emerge and develop within this same framework of trial-and-error experimentation. Looking at this selection of works made throughout his career brings home forcefully the point that for him art was less about products than about process. No painting was ever truly finished, because the quest for the vague and elusive visual resolution he called realization was never final. Roger Fry’s study of Cézanne led him to conclude that “for him the synthesis was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching it; it was a reality, incapable of complete realization.” In fact, however, Cézanne seems to have come to recognize that realization was not an asymptote – it was not a fixed goal he could approach, but rather a moving target that receded from him faster than he could progress toward it.

Paradoxically, he discovered that his task became more difficult as he became more skillful. A month before his death he reported to his son that “I am becoming more clear-sighted before nature,” then continued, “but the realization of my senses is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses, I have not the magnificent richness of coloring that animates nature.” As he grew older, his constant application made his vision more acute, allowing him to distinguish ever smaller gradations of color and form in nature, but this made it ever more difficult to create the precise colors on his palette, and to make the necessary marks with his brush, that would accurately render his perception of the object he was portraying.



Wikimedia Commons

“Portrait of Uncle Dominique in Profile,” by Paul Cézanne (1866). 

In The Unknown Masterpiece, published in 1837, Balzac created the fictional master Frenhofer, who had spent a lifetime pursuing an evasive artistic ideal of beauty. An admirer of Frenhofer recognized his predicament, describing him as “a man who sees higher and farther than other painters,” but who “by dint of so much research…has come to doubt the very object of his investigations.” Cézanne famously identified with Frenhofer. Emile Bernard described a conversation at dinner during Bernard’s visit to Aix in 1904:

One evening I spoke to him of The Unknown Masterpiece, and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s tragedy. He got up from the table, stood before me, and striking his chest with his index finger, he admitted wordlessly by this repeated gesture that he was the very character in the novel. He was so moved by the feeling that tears filled his eyes. Someone who had lived earlier, but whose soul was prophetical, had understood him.


Wikimedia Commons

“Portrait of Uncle Dominique in a Turban,” by Paul Cézanne (1866). 

In the abrupt ending of Balzac’s novella, Frenhofer killed himself, after burning his canvases, in frustration at his inability to achieve his impossible goal. Cézanne felt this same frustration, but he did not yield to it, and he fulfilled his vow to die painting. Though he could never satisfy his lofty ambitions, his late work directly influenced every important artistic development of the next generation, and today remains a monument to the true beginning of modern art. His career demonstrates not only that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but that it can be the enemy of the great. The impossibility of Cézanne’s dream should not blind us to the fact that his art, and life, were in fact a triumph.


To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

If you have something to say that you want to say on Facts & Arts, please

Write to the Editor, or write a comment in the comments section.


Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.