Impossible Dreams: Cézanne and Frenhofer

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 famously declared "I seek in painting." He spoke of his art in almost spiritual terms, as a quest to reach the distant goal he referred to as "realization." In a letter of 1904, the 65-year old master wrote that "I progress very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless." The next year, he confessed his fear that "My age and health will never allow me to realize my dream of art that I have been pursuing all my life." In 1906, a month before his death, he wrote that "I am always studying after nature and it seems to me that I make slow progress," but he confided to his son that "I am so slow in expressing myself that it makes me very sad." The irony of Cézanne's frustration at the end of his life stems from the fact that it was his most recent work that would later be considered his greatest, and would directly inspire every important artistic development of the next generation.

2015-03-16-1426528819-1177596-1024pxPaul_Czanne_156.jpg
Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait (1900). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The great critic Roger Fry concluded that for Cézanne, "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's late letters reveal that realization was not an asymptote: it was not a fixed point that he could approach, but rather a moving target that receded from him faster than he could progress towards it. Paradoxically, Cézanne understood that his task became more difficult as he became more skillful. In one of his last letters to his son, he wrote that "as a painter I am becoming more clear-sighted before nature," then continued, "but...with me the realization of my senses is always painful." In simple and precise language, he explained his difficulties:

I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses. I have not the magnificent richness of coloring that animates nature. Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place, by turning now more to the right, now more to the left.
As Cézanne grew older, his constant application made his vision more acute, allowing him to distinguish ever smaller gradations of color and form in nature. But his increased sensitivity 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.

When asked what fictional character he most admired, Cézanne responded: Frenhofer. Frenhofer was created by Honoré de Balzac in the novella The Unknown Masterpiece (1837). He was an aged master who had spent his life in pursuit of an elusive artistic ideal of beauty, and had devoted a decade to creating one perfect painting: "It's ten years now, young man, that I've been struggling with this problem. But what are ten short years when you're contending with nature?" He wanted no less than to bring his figure to life: "She breathed! Though I thought I'd learned how to render nature's depth and solidity on a flat canvas, this morning, by daylight, I discovered my mistake."

2015-03-16-1426528934-174261-Statue_of_BALZAC_made_by_RODIN_Paris.jpg
Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, in Paris. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Porbus, another painter, described Frenhofer's predicament: "Frenhofer's a man in love with our art, a man who sees higher and farther than other painters. He's meditated on the nature of color, on the absolute truth of line, but by dint of so much research, he has come to doubt the very object of his investigations." Porbus warned a young painter to avoid Frenhofer's uncertainty: "practice and observation are everything to a painter; so that if reasoning and poetry argue with our brushes, we wind up in doubt, like our old man here...Don't do that to yourself! ... A painter should philosophize only with a brush in his hand."

Frenhofer himself was beyond help. His pursuit of the impossible led to failure and despair, and the final sentence of the story revealed that he had died after burning all his canvases. Balzac was intrigued by the problem of artistic creativity, and the tension between doubt and achievement. He was an experimental writer, who revised obsessively. He made Frenhofer a paradigmatic example of the vicious spiral that many experimental artists fear, in which the experimentation that yields greater knowledge might lead addictively to the need for more experimentation. The growth of wisdom might become tied inextricably to greater uncertainty and doubt, with destructive consequences.

Cézanne kept a copy of The Unknown Masterpiece at his bedside, and told a friend that all painters should reread it at least once a year. The painter Emile Bernard, who became a friend of Cézanne's late in the latter's life, wrote of his visit to Cézanne in Aix in 1904, and of a conversation at dinner:

One evening I spoke to him of Le Chef d'oeuvre Inconnu 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 this feeling that tears filled his eyes. Someone who had lived earlier, but whose soul was prophetical, had understood him.
Unlike Frenhofer, however, Cézanne never yielded to his doubt. A week before his death, in what would be his final letter to his son, he wrote: "I continue to work with difficulty, but in the end there is something. That is the important thing, I believe." Even today, his perseverance remains a source of inspiration to experimental artists, just as Balzac's fictional character was a source of inspiration to him.

To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.




Below links to Amazon for books written by the author to article,
David W. Galenson.




     

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 12.06.2018
Extract: “Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.
Added 06.06.2018
Extracts from the article: "Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong?".............."Another option is to look at the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. One of these is type 2 diabetes." ............"Testing these [diabetes] drugs in animal models of another neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, also showed impressive effects, ............These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference. To see any protective effect in the brain in a clinical trial is completely new, and it supports the new theory that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused, at least in part, by a lack of growth factor activity in the brain. These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference."
Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "The most common defense of truth is the pragmatic one – namely, that truth works; that true beliefs are more likely to get the job done than those that are not true. The pragmatic account of the value of truth is not wrong, but at the same time it is not enough. Truth is not valuable for solely instrumental or extrinsic reasons. Truth has intrinsic value as well. When we reduce the value of truth to instrumentality, it is a very short step to saying that we just want beliefs that work for us, regardless of whether they are true or not."
Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.