Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 12, 2009
Matthew Simms Cézanne's Watercolors: Between Drawing and Painting New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 256 pp.; 65 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300140668)
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Matthew Simms’s Cézanne’s Watercolors: Between Drawing and Painting proposes to restore Paul Cézanne’s watercolors to their rightful position of importance in the painter’s oeuvre as well as demonstrate the meaning they held for the artist. Supporting Simms’s argument is a lush presentation of the watercolors, magnificently displayed in full-page color plates and enlarged details. The book’s text is woven around a few key ideas: that for Cézanne watercolor was an autonomous form of expression, a separate category, a “mixed medium” that stood independently and in its own right between the separate worlds of drawing and oil painting; that Cézanne used watercolor as a means to render his sensations in all their immediacy (five chapter headings include the word “sensation” in varied permutations); and that watercolor for him represented a dialogue giving equal importance to line (“a subtending network of pencil lines”) and color (“scattered color spots”) (86).

Watercolor has always been regarded as a medium of ambiguous identity, afloat between the two more prestigious spheres of drawing and oil painting. Practiced by both amateurs and professional artists, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries watercolor painting attracted new interest because of its convenience and portability. Watercolor artists became essential members of scientific, geological, and archeological expeditions, serving multiple purposes of nationalistic assertion and celebration of cultural and geo-physical singularity. In France, watercolor was embraced by the young Romantic avant-garde, men like Théodore Géricault, Eugène Isabey, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Delaroche, and Achille and Eugène Devéria. This was partly because of the Anglomania that swept the post-Napoleonic generation, infusing every aspect of social life from cultural interchange to fashion and afternoon tea. The young Delacroix, for one, struck up a friendship in the 1820s with the English-born Richard Parkes Bonington and the brothers Thales, Copley, and Newton Fielding, with all of whom he shared a studio at one time, brought together by their common interest in watercolor. His good friend Charles Soulier, who had been brought up in England as the son of a French émigré, also painted in watercolor.

What did watercolor mean to that new generation presaging the advent of modernity? Delacroix prized watercolor drawings for the lightness of their technical execution, their coloristic brilliance, the immediacy of their “effect,” their technical freedom, and their independence from servile imitation. In a letter from 30 November 1861, he called them “espèces de diamants dont l’oeil est flatté et ravi, indépendamment de tout sujet et de toute imitation” (“a kind of diamonds that flatter and delight the eye, independently of any subject and any imitation” [my translation]). He echoed the manner of watercolor and its shimmering melding hues in his smaller oil paintings with themes from history and literature. With a (rapt) eye on Delacroix’s color palette and an ambition to define an aesthetic for modernity, Baudelaire metaphorically linked the evanescent quality of watercolor, as exemplified by the sketches of contemporary urban scenes produced by his archetypal modernist, the graphic and watercolor artist Constantin Guys, with the ephemeral component of a dual ideal of Beauty, part eternal (“la beauté générale,” “le beau unique et absolu”) and part contingent (“la beauté particulière,” “la beauté de circonstance”). Watercolor, along with pastel crayons, lithography, and etching, became the quintessential medium of the modern. It captured the unique dimension that time imparted to our sensations, the poet declared in his celebrated essay “The Painter of Modern Life” published in Le Figaro in 1863. This is the context in which Cézanne, an admirer of Delacroix and a devoted reader of Baudelaire, chose to work in watercolor.

The organization of Simms’s book follows the conventional chronological “slicing” of Cézanne’s career into well-defined periods that correspond to changes in his life, physical location, and artistic style. Accordingly, the first chapter deals with the 1860s and Cézanne’s dark impasto manner, his “manière couillarde,” seen here as a direct reflection of the mercurial temperament of his youth. Simms suggests that Cézanne’s turn to watercolor was part of his search for greater expressivity as well as a medium that occupied his time between painting sessions. In other words, it provided him with an outlet for his overflowing visual imagination. The first watercolors are discussed chronologically, using a descriptive approach that eschews interpretation of their intriguing subject matter. A section in this chapter provides historical background, stressing the evolution of the medium from an art of precise topographical information to one of atmospheric effects based primarily on color. Simms highlights the different approach in England, where it was regarded as an ambitious medium, aspiring to be a rival to painting, and in France, where its identity as a distinct pictorial genre as well as its inferiority vis-à-vis painting went unquestioned. It was precisely its marginality and the possibility of free handling that inspired the Romantics’ infatuation with watercolor, and may have appealed to Cézanne as well. In these early examples, Cézanne’s technique clearly separates drawing and color, asserting the autonomy of the one medium from the other. As Simms puts it: “The pencil marks that we see . . . cannot be said to ground color in the traditional manner of an under drawing” (28).

In chapter 2, the watercolors of the 1870s are examined in the context of Cézanne’s closeness, a true apprenticeship, with Pissarro at Auvers and Pontoise, and his adoption of the Impressionist plein-air aesthetic and more spontaneous handling. His pictures became smaller, his palette lightened up, and his facture broke into smaller, quick strokes. Watercolor served Cézanne as a shorthand for expressing his sensations. The rising Impressionist presence in the Paris art scene validated the idea of “sensation” as the artist’s personal response to nature, and landscape in particular, a response which was not imitative but relied on “optical experience” as the source of subjective interpretation. But despite Simms’s argument that watercolors were a significant component of Impressionism, Cézanne was exceptional in his interest in the medium. Cézanne’s technique echoes the practice described by Paul Signac in his 1927 monograph on the landscape painter Johan Barthold Jongkind as displaying “a back and forth sequence of drawing and color,” a collaborative process of media which Simms likens to a “division of labor” in the process of rendering sensation (56–57). In that regard, and in their looser handling viewed as particularly French, Cézanne’s watercolors differed from most watercolor painters, whose works tended to emulate the completeness of oil paintings in the British fashion. Despite his “fleeting” touch, the three watercolors Cézanne exhibited in 1877 with the Impressionists met with virulent criticism from the (French) critics.

Chapter 3 tackles the issue of incompleteness in Cézanne’s art as viewed through his watercolors. In the larger context of French modernist aesthetics, “unfinished” was a common accusation leveled by conservative critics against any painting that lacked academic rendering and a polished surface. For Simms, unfinished versus finished sections in a work by Cézanne, whether in painting or watercolor, record the “patterns of his interest and attention” (95). Simms here compellingly evokes Jonathan Crary’s discussion of the dialectic relationship of attention and distraction in shaping modernist vision. He suggests that Cézanne’s intermittent approach to the visual, apparent in the unevenly worked paintings or the partial renderings of the subjects of his watercolors, reveal the continuous ebb and flow of the psychological dynamics of perception characteristic of modernity. The tactile associations of drawing working in tandem with the optical associations of watercolor pigment implied, moreover, two orders of sensation: tactile versus optical. Impressionist paintings, for some critics, were regarded as purely optical, an affair of the eye. Cézanne’s watercolors, on the other hand, with their reliance on both a drawing substructure and optical sensations, manifested a synthesis of the tactile and the optical. Simms also applies Henri Bergson’s notion of a “durée” as reflected in Cézanne’s concatenations of various points of views, each presumably recording an accumulation of time. For example, the watercolors of Mont Sainte-Victoire, with their shifting vantage points and their layered rendering, according to the author, suggest the idea of unfolding duration (120).

The two last chapters, 4 and 5, concentrate on the watercolors of the late period, made between 1895–1906. In both of these chapters, watercolors are examined in tandem with paintings to point out visual effects and differences inherent to each medium. Critical in this context is the notion of “envelope” (136), a word used by Cézanne to describe the “flux of light and air” that enfolds the objects of representation, intervening between the artist and his motif, rendering the latter more optical than tactile. Simms sees the late watercolors of landscapes and still lifes as explorations of effects of light (especially southern Provençal light) and atmosphere. A section in chapter 5 offers an interesting account of Ambroise Vollard’s little-known exhibition of Cézanne’s watercolors in 1905 and its critical reception (just two known references in the press). The chapter concludes with a study of stylistic similarities and differences between the watercolors and oil paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire from the early 1900s. The same theme appears in the book’s concluding chapter, which deals with the subject of bathers in Cézanne’s art, examined through nine watercolors and the three large oil compositions of the subject. That reading yields observations regarding an implied sense of mobility in the watercolor studies of male and female bathers “through the use of repeated contours and displaced indications of spatial positions” (188). Simms suggests that, as a result, the bather images project a sense of vitality, social harmony, and physical pleasure, which may represent Cézanne’s “compensatory vision” (196), a sort of dream vision, as the painter grew increasingly disabled and isolated in his old age.

Simms’s book accomplishes the goal set by its author, to refocus attention on the watercolors as an autonomous body of work in Cézanne’s oeuvre. To that end, he considers these watercolors closely—through careful visual scanning transcribed into meticulous and eloquently descriptive prose—as composed of a dialogic interaction between drawing and color, the two media that served as Cézanne’s primary tools in capturing his “sensations.”

Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer
Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor, Institute of Fine Arts; Editor-in-Chief, The Art Bulletin

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