PRINT October 1977

Cézanne on Solids and Spaces

FEW GREAT ARTISTS’ THEORIES ARE more in need of explication than Cézanne’s. Like his paintings, they stand at a major historical intersection, and the heavy mental traffic flowing by, both backward into tradition and forward into modernism, seems increasingly to blur their contours and to dull their colors. To recapture their original meaning, we must try to distinguish the personal significance of the artist’s theories from their sources in older pedagogical treatises, on the one hand, and their influence on later esthetic programs, on the other. This is especially true of the most famous and controversial of all Cézanne’s statements—on treating nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone—which seems both to summarize the traditional basis of his thinking and to epitomize the radical aspect of his art.

The statement occurs in Cézanne’s letter to Emile Bernard of April 15, 1904:

May I repeat what I told you here: treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, whether it is a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the show which the Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus spreads before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.1

It is remarkable how the language itself here reveals the dual orientation of Cézanne’s thought. For if it is the language of the avant-garde painter, concerned with the geometric construction of his canvas, it is also that of the conservative worshiper, to whom phrases from the Mass come naturally to mind. “For us men” repeats the words “propter nos homines” in the Credo, and “Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus,” even if inserted in deference to the devout Bernard, derives from the same text,2 one that Cézanne would certainly have known by heart from having recited it often. That he turned increasingly to religion in the last years of his life, that he worshiped regularly at the Cathedral of Aix, is reported by a number of sources.3 Hence the appropriateness in his mind of using such language in a statement of artistic belief that itself amounts to a credo.

Actually, the passage in question contains not one statement but two, and both their independence and their close connection must be noted. The first seems to advocate a reduction of nature’s infinitely varied forms to a few geometric solids. The second proposes a method of spatial construction—or rather, three methods, one involving “proper perspective,” another the use of horizontal and vertical lines, and a third what is usually called “atmospheric perspective.” Yet the first statement, on geometric solids, serves to introduce the second one, on spatial construction, and is closely related to it. It was only in later commentaries, which began to appear soon after Bernard published the letter in 1907,4 that the two theoretical elements became separated, with the result that neither one could be understood fully or reconciled easily with Cézanne’s practice as a painter.

In itself, the idea of reducing complex natural forms to simple geometric ones in order to master techniques of representation is familiar enough in art education, and on more than one occasion Cézanne showed clearly that he conceived of it in such terms. When asked by the young painter Francis Jourdain for guidance, Cézanne advised him to copy his stovepipe, a cylindrical form, by distinguishing the planes of light, shadow, and halftone.5 He in turn was undoubtedly recalling advice he had received many years earlier at the Municipal Drawing School of Aix, or had read in one of the many manuals of self-instruction published in the first half of the 19th century. Both Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Jean-Philippe Voiart, for example, recommend that the student begin by learning to draw fundamental forms—cubes, cylinders, and spheres—rather than by copying engravings, as had been the practice earlier.6 And in his Morphographie, a “treatise on linear and perspective drawing,” Jean-Pierre Thénot, whom we shall meet again as a probable source for Cézanne’s ideas on perspective, specifically mentions the cylinder, the cone, and the sphere.7 So common was this pedagogical method around 1840 that Ingres, who naturally preferred his students to draw after engravings, could ask sardonically: “What purpose do these cubes, these cones and polygons serve?”8

Aside from its practical, Aristotelian meaning, the notion of a perfect geometry underlying the imperfect nature we normally perceive inevitably had an idealistic, Platonic sense as well. In his Grammaire des arts du dessin, a highly regarded summary of academic thought, Charles Blanc discusses the cube and the sphere as models for young students to copy, but in philosophical terms that show how much the Platonic notion of geometric forms as the origin and essence of natural ones persisted in the later 19th century. “Geometry, which marked the beginning of that divine creation of which life has been the culmination,” Blanc declares, “ought also to take first place in that human creation which is art, and of which the last word is beauty.”9 The same thought, couched in terms closer to those Cézanne employed, occurs in a Greek inscription found among the ruins at Pergamon and published more than once in the 19th century: “The cone, the sphere, and the cylinder are divine things and provide pleasing forms.”10

From the beginning, moreover, this Platonic interpretation was imposed on Cézanne’s purely pragmatic advice. We can see the distortion taking place in Bernard’s account in 1921 of a conversation with Cézanne in 1904, one that is obviously not remembered verbatim 17 years later, but is conceived as a kind of Platonic dialogue: Bernard, quoting both Plato and Francisco da Hollanda’s conversations with Michelangelo, argues for a traditional idealistic theory of art, and Cézanne, for a modern empirical one.11 Thus when Cézanne, lamenting the sterility of contemporary art instruction, observes, “One should begin by studying geometric forms: the cone, the cube, the cylinder, the sphere. When one knew how to represent the forms and planes of such things, one would know how to paint,” Bernard naturally replies: “They are obviously present in everything we see, they are its invisible scaffolding.”12

In the Cubist studios of the following decades, where such ideas were rampant, the statement in Cézanne’s letter of April 15th was soon divorced from its context and, enhanced by his already great prestige, was taken as an esthetic program. As early as 1910, in an article on Picasso, Léon Werth refers to Cézanne as a master “for whom nature was sphere, cone, and cylinder,”13 and by 1927 Severini is retrospectively linking him not only with Cubism but with Ingres, whom he despised: “It is well . . . for us to remember . . . what Ingres, Cézanne, and Cubism have said and shown, namely that with the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder one can do everything.”14 The same thought also appears in a treatise published in 1927 by Gleizes: “Cézanne spoke of the cylinder, cube, and sphere, thinking that their purity could unify everything.”15 But in substituting the cube for the cone, an apparently insignificant change possibly based on the recent publication of Bernard’s 1904 “conversation,” Gleizes the Cubist completes the process of distorting Cézanne’s meaning.

For it is clear that, at least in his letter of April 15th, Cézanne chose the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone not as geometric solids of Platonic purity, but as forms whose curving surfaces recede continuously from the eye. In another letter to Bernard, dated July 25th (also in 1904), he says as much: “[The eye] becomes concentric through looking and working. I mean to say that in an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there is a culminating point; and this point is always—in spite of the tremendous effect, light and shade, color sensations—the closest to our eye.”16 This observation is consistent with Cézanne’s practice, also summarized in advice to younger artists, of using receding planes of graded tonality—or better, of modulated color—in order to enhance the effect of roundness in modeling a form.

Eventually Cézanne was able to see such convexity everywhere. One of his favorite axioms, recorded by his son, was that “bodies seen in space are all convex.”17 And according to the painters Rivière and Schnerb, who visited him in 1905, he applied it equally to “a definitely spherical or cylindrical object and to a flat surface like a wall or a floor.”18 As Lawrence Gowing observes, “This habit seems to have reflected an awareness of the fact that the line of vision from the eye meets a flat surface at every point at a different angle . . . The variation in the angles at which a flat surface presents itself to the eye is thus different only in degree from the angles at which the line of vision strikes a rounded surface.”19 Hence the constant modulations from light to dark, and especially from warm to cool, in the coloring even of bare surfaces such as tabletops and walls, in Cézanne’s late still lifes. In the one in the Phillips Collection, for example, the color shifts perceptibly from orange to violet to blue to green not only on the rounded ginger jar, the floral drapery, and the white cloth, but also on the flat wall in the center that is so curiously framed and brought into prominence by the surrounding forms.

In specifying the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone in his letter of April 15th, then, Cézanne is merely illustrating forms that can be “brought into proper perspective, so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point.” As if to remove any doubt, he states three months later in the letter of July 25th, after enumerating several spherical forms, that “the edges of the objects flee toward a center on our horizon.” Clearly he has in mind traditional perspective, as it was taught in art schools and explained in manuals like Thénot’s Principes de perspective pratique, which he is reported to have owned.20 Like the method of learning to draw from simple geometric solids, this one is entirely conventional in origin, though its significance for Cézanne’s art is highly personal.

How, in fact, can its relevance to his practice be understood? For it is well known that Cézanne normally avoids effects of deep perspectival space by eliminating orthogonal lines or modifying their angle of convergence, by tilting up receding horizontal planes to reconcile them with the picture surface, and by bringing distant forms into closer relation with those in the foreground. And he tends to even when the motif contains strongly convergent elements, such as an alley of trees or a receding road. Does this mean, as some have maintained, that we cannot “interpret Cézanne’s statement as anything but a contradiction of his work” and that “we ought completely to disregard the statement”?21 Only if it is assumed that in citing the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone he intends these small solid forms to provide models for the representation of the larger, more open forms of a landscape. The difference is one in scale, between discreet foreground elements and unbounded distant ones. But in effect it becomes the more absolute difference between solids and spaces.

Significantly, Cézanne says nothing in his letter of April 15th about the use of converging lines to create an illusion of space; in this, too, he does not contradict his own practice. On the contrary, he goes on in the same passage to advocate a means of suggesting depth that is perfectly consistent with his practice, though it has rarely been recognized as such. “Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth,” he says, “lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.” This may sound at first like another echo of conventional theory, but only if the “lines perpendicular to the horizon” are mistaken for orthogonals (these would be truly perpendicular, not convergent). Instead they should be understood as verticals both in depth and on the picture surface. Such a reading is confirmed by a little-known remark of Cézanne’s reported by the poet Jean Royère: “At the [Ecole des] Beaux-Arts one indeed learns the rules of perspective, but one has never understood that depth is achieved by a juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal planes, and that in fact is perspective.”22 In this method depth is presumably suggested by placing vertical planes, or lines marking their edges, at diminishing intervals in space and by linking them with horizontal planes or lines at similar intervals, thus producing an effect of recession without employing perspectival convergence. Cézanne’s use of such a procedure is most evident in just those views of receding alleys and roads where strict convergence is eliminated and the distances between trees, and those between their shadows on the ground, progressively diminish. It is also evident in certain late landscapes, painted after 1900, in the gradual diminution in scale and spacing of the color patches that define most of the forms in the absence of a firm linear structure. This is a means that Mondrian, too, later employed, though in a more schematic form, in his Pier and Ocean pictures.

In the letter of April 15th, Cézanne also speaks of atmospheric perspective, of “the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.” The theme recurs in one of his last letters, where, in discussing his “ideas and sensations” (the title of a book by the Goncourt brothers), he exclaims: “Long live the Goncourts, Pissarro, and all those who have the impulse toward color, representing light and air.”23 But nowhere else does Cézanne mention his use of blue, which plays so prominent a part in suggesting mood as well as atmosphere in his landscapes of these years. In the Museum of Modern Art’s well-known Pines and Rocks, for example, a bright blue vibrates in the intervals between the reddish brown trunks and branches; it pulses amidst the equally vibrant green and yellow foliage, and merges imperceptibly with the pale gray sky, thus vividly conveying the effect of circulating air. In the National Gallery version of the Château Noir, the strokes of deep blue and green in and around the trees also create a sensation of air, yet they are applied so thickly that they become an integral part of the paint fabric, blurring the distinction between solid and void. And in the so-called Blue Landscape in the Hermitage, heavy veils of somber blue and green, pervading the sky and earth as well as the masses of foliage, evoke not only atmosphere but a mood of profound stillness and sadness, like that in Picasso’s exactly contemporary Blue Period pictures.24

Theodore Reff is professor of art history at Columbia University.

This article is a revised, and enlarged version of part of the essay “Painting and Theory in the Final Decade,” in Cézanne: The Late Work, ed. William Rubin, which will be published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, this month in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title. The show will be on view from October 7 to January 3, 1978. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, January 25–March 21, and the Grand Palais, Paris, April 28–July 23, 1978.



1. Paul Cézanne, Letters, ed. John Rewald, 4th ed., New York, 1976, p. 301.

2. These derivations emerged in discussion with Joseph Masheck.

3. See Marcel Provence, “Paul Cézanne, l’artiste chrétien,” L’Eveil (Marseilles), January 25, 1939, and the sources cited there.

4. In Emile Bernard, “Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne et lettres inédites,” Mercure de France, 69, 1907, p. 617.

5. Francis Jourdain, “A Propos d’un peintre difficile: Cézanne,” Arts de France, no. 5, 1946, pp. 4–5. See also Theodore Reff, “Cézanne and Poussin,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 23, 1960, p. 169 n. 134.

6. See Georg Kempter, Dokumente zur französischen Malerei in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Munich, 1968, pp. 342, 368.

7. Jean-Pierre Thénot, Morphographie: ou l'art de représenter . . . des corps solides, Paris, 1838, pp. 50–56.

8. See Kempter, Dokumente, p. 337. Alluding to the Neoclassic taste for monuments of severely geometric form, he added: “Unhappy pupils, you are placed before your tombs and forced to copy them.”

9. Charles Blanc, Grammaire des arts du dessin, 2nd ed., Paris, 1870, pp. 572–76; proposed as Cézanne's direct source in Christopher Gray, Cubist Aesthetic Theories, Baltimore, 1953, p. 49.

10. Marie Florent, Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce, Paris, 1809, pp. 171–72

11. See Reff, “Cézanne and Poussin,” pp. 151–52.

12. Emile Bernard, Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1926, p. 94; this section is dated 1921.

13. Léon Werth, “Exposition Picasso,” La Phalange, June 1910; trans in Edward Fry, Cubism, New York, 1966, p. 57. See also Carlo Carrà; “Da Cézanne à noi Futuristi,” Lacerba, May 15, 1913; trans. in Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel Chipp, Berkeley, 1968, p. 304.

14. Gino Severini, “Peinture murale,” Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne, no. 36, June 1927, p. 8.

15. Albert Gleizes, Peinture et perspective descriptive, Sablons, 1927, p. 9.

16. Cézanne, Letters, p. 306. See Carla Gottlieb, “The Joy of Life: Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne,” College Art Journal, 18, 1958, pp. 110–11.

17. Léo Larguier, Le Dimanche avec Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1925, p. 136.

18. R. P. Rivière and J. F. Schnerb, “L’Atelier de Cézanne,” Grande Revue, 46, 1907, pp. 813–14.

19. Lawrence Gowing, “The Logic of Organized Sensations,” in Cézanne: The Late Work, p. 57.

20. Jean-Pierre Thénot, Principes de perspective pratique, 2nd ed., Paris, 1837, pp. 14-18. On Cézanne’s familiarity with it, see Jean de Beucken, Un Portrait de Cézanne, Paris, 1955, p. 304.

21. Erle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition, 3rd ed., Berkeley, 1968, p. 8.

22. Jean Royère, “Paul Cézanne, Erinnerungen,” Kunst und Künstler, 10, 1912, p. 485. He met Cézanne about 1896, through Gasquet.

23. Cézanne, Letters, p. 320, to his son, August 3, 1906.

24. On the various meanings of blue for Cézanne, see Kurt Badt, The Art of Cézanne, trans. Sheila Ogilvie, Berkeley, 1965, pp. 56–58, 79–82.