Basket of Apples

Paul Cezanne
Keywords: BasketApples

Work Overview

The Basket of Apples
Paul Cézanne
Oil on canvas
25 7/16 x 31 1/2 in. (65 x 80 cm)
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

Art, Paul Cézanne once claimed, is "a harmony running parallel to nature," not an imitation of nature. In his quest for underlying structure and composition, he recog-nized that the artist is not bound to represent real objects in real space. Thus, The Basket of Apples contains one of his signature tilted tables, an impossible rectangle with no right angles. On it, a basket of apples pitches forward from a slablike base, seemingly balanced by the bottle and the tablecloth’s thick, sculptural folds. The heavy modeling, solid brushstrokes, and glowing colors give the composition a density and dynamism that a more realistic still life could never possess. This painting, one of Cézanne’s rare signed works, was part of an important exhibition urged on the artist by the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1895. Since Cézanne had spent the majority of his career painting in isolation in his native Provence, this was the first opportunity in nearly twenty years for the public to see the work of the artist who is now hailed as the father of modern painting.

It is hard to imagine a circumstance of everyday life in which these objects would occur together in just this way. We are led to consider the whole as an arrangement by the artist, a pure invention. The basket rests on a block, the cookies on a platter set on a book, the apples on a richly folded cloth, and all these together lie on a table. This insistent superposition of things--very clear in the biscuits--is the clue to the artistic idea: the painting is a construction. The table too is treated as a kind of masonry with strongly banded forms. What makes all this more interesting is that so many of the elements are unarchitectural in feeling: the thirty or more apples, irreducibly complex in the sequence of colors, each fruit a singular piece of painting, a unique object; the tilted asymmetrical bottle and the basket: the hanging, rumpled tablecloth. This carefully considered still life, so exact and subtle in its decisions, retains an aspect of randomness, of accidental grouping. It is an order in which sets of elements of different degrees of order are harmonized; the apples in the basket--the apples on the tablecloth; the broken folds of the latter--the regular pattern of the biscuits. Balanced as a composition, the painting risks a great unbalance in the parts. It is not simply an equilibrium of large and small units, but of the the stable and the less stable. The odd tilting of the bottle must be understood in relation to other instabilities as part of a problem: to create a balanced whole in which some elements are themselves unbalanced. In older art this was done with figures in motion, or with a sloping ground, or hanging curtains and reclining objects. What is new in Cézanne is the unstable axis of a vertical object--a seated figure, a house, a bottle. Such deviations make the final equilibrium of the picture seem more evidently an achievement of the artist rather than an imitation of an already existing stability in nature. Here we cannot help but see together as balanced variations of a common unbalance the diagonals in different planes--the tilting of the bottle, the inclined basket, the foreshortened lines of the cookies, and, corresponding to these three tilted forms, the lines of the tablecloth converging to the lower edge.

The color is luminous, robust, and clear; tempered in the large objects, more intense in the small; and everywhere finely nuanced--the product of a visibly active brush. Although the bottle has the smoothness of glass, the other objects are fairly neutral in texture; assimilated to the qualities of the pigment and the stroke, they look solid but are not distinct substances--in the table this character goes with the astonishingly radical "abstract" treatment of its structure. The bottle too is submitted to this concreteness of paint and touch in the loosened, open rendering of its right edge. 
-- Meyer Schapiro

In David's Neo-Classical era, still life was considered the least important subject type. Only minor artists bothered with what was then seen as the most purely decorative and trivial of painting subjects. The hierarchy of subjects went roughly from the most important—historical and religious themes (often very large in scale); to important—portraiture (usually of moderate scale); less important—landscape & genre (themes of common life, usually of modest scale); to least important— still life (generally small canvases).

Cézanne pushed this distinction between the vision of the camera and of human vision. He reasoned that the same issues applied to the illusionism of the old masters, of Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, etc. For instance, think about how linear perspective works. Since the Early Renaissance, constructing the illusion of space required that the artist remain frozen in a single point in space in order maintain consistent recession among all receding orthogonals. This frozen vantage point belongs to both the artist and then the viewer. But is it a full description of the the experience of human sight? Cézanne's still life suggests that it is not.
If a Renaissance painter set out to render Cézanne's still life objects (not that they would, mind you), that artist would have placed himself in a specific point before the table and taken great pains to render the collection of tabletop objects only from that original perspective. Every orthogonal line would remain consistent (and straight). But this is clearly not what Cézanne had in mind. His perspective seems jumbled. When we first look carefully, it may appear as if he was simply unable to draw, but if you spend more time, it may occur to you that Cézanne is, in fact, drawing carefully, although according to a new set of rules.
Seemingly simple, Cézanne's concern with representing the true experience of sight had enormous implications for 20th century visual culture. Cézanne realized that unlike the fairly simple and static Renaissance vision of space, people actually see in a fashion that is more complex, we see through both time and space. In other words, we move as we see. In contemporary terms, one might say that human vision is less like the frozen vision of a still camera and more akin to the continuous vision of a video camera except that he worked with oil on canvas which dries and becomes static.

So very tentatively, Cézanne began the purposeful destruction of the unified image. Look again at the cookies, or whatever they are, stacked upon the plate in the upper right. Is it possible that the gentle disagreements that we noted result from the representation of two slightly different view points? These are not large ruptures, but rather, they suggest careful and tentative discovery. It is as if Cézanne had simply depicted the bottom cookies as he looked across at them and then as he looked more slightly down at the top cookies after shifting his weight to his forward leg. Furthermore, I'm not sure that he was all that proud of these breaks that allow for more than a single perspective. Look, for instance, at the points where the table must break to express these multiple perspectives and you will notice that they are each hidden from view. Nevertheless, in doing this, Cézanne changed the direction of painting.

The Basket of Apples is a still life oil painting by French artist Paul Cézanne. It belongs to the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The piece is often noted for its disjointed perspective. It has been described as a balanced composition due to its unbalanced parts;[1] the tilted bottle, the incline of the basket, and the foreshortened lines of the cookies mesh with the lines of the tablecloth.[1] Additionally, the right side of the tabletop is not in the same plane as the left side, as if the image simultaneously reflects two viewpoints.[2] Paintings such as this helped form a bridge between Impressionism and Cubism.