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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,

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