Listening to Art, by William Denton.
Volume six, number eight: Woman with a Coffee Pot by Paul Cézanne.
Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.
This is the second of two issues devoted to Paul Cézanne, and as before I will focus on a letter he wrote.
This letter was to novelist Émile Zola. Zola and Cézanne became friends at school in childhood and they were close for decades. As Alex Danchev says in Cézanne: A Life (p. 28): “Cézanne’s relationship to Zola was the main axis of his emotional life from cradle to grave. Theirs was one of the seminal artistic liaisons: as intimate, as vexed, as steadfast, as fascinating, and as fathomless as any in the annals of modernism.”
In 1886 Zola’s novel L’Œuvre (in English The Masterpiece), part of the Rougon-Macquart series, was published. The main character, somewhat based on Cézanne, is a failed genius who becomes obsessed with a painting he cannot complete and in the end hangs himself. Here is a quote from early in the novel where the protagonist tells a friend what sort of art he wants to make. This is from the translation by Thomas Walton revised by Roger Pearson (p. 37):
“Now we need something else…. Just exactly what I don’t really know! If I did, and if I could … I should be very smart … and I should be the one person to be reckoned with! But I do feel that the grand, Romantic pageantry of Delacroix is just about played out, and Courbet’s ‘black’ painting is already beginning to feel stuffy and reek of a musty studio where the sun never enters…. Do you see what I mean? Perhaps that’s what we need now, sunlight, open air, something bright and fresh, people and things as seen in real daylight. I don’t know, but it seems to me that that’s our sort of painting, the sort of painting our generation should produce and look at.”
Zola sent a copy of the novel to Cézanne when it was published in early 1886. Cézanne replied on 04 April 1886:
I’ve just received L’Œuvre, which you were kind enough to send me. I thank the author of the Rougon-Macquart for this kind token of remembrance, and ask him to allow me to wish him well, thinking of years gone by.
Ever yours, with the feeling of time passing,
It was generally thought that Cézanne was so angry at the portrayal of the artist in the book that he never wrote to Zola again. As Richard Lethbridge puts it in a 2014 article, “This was the moment, so the legend had it for over a century, that Cézanne put an end to a thirty-four year friendship, never again having contact with the novelist.”
But in the last few years another letter came to light. It was very similar, sent by Cézanne to Zola the next year, on 28 November 1887, thanking him for a copy of the next novel in the series, La Terre (in English The Earth). Thus the 1886 letter was not the abrupt rupture of a long friendship. Nevertheless, for various reasons they had little contact for their last fifteen years. Lethbridge says this “suggests, if not the end of a lifelong relationship, then at least a gradual parting of the ways after 1886.”
This is a painting, oil on canvas, 97 cm wide by 130 cm high.
Now let’s listen to Woman with a Coffee Pot by Paul Cézanne, recorded at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, on 16 July 2019.
That was Woman with a Coffee Pot by Paul Cézanne. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.
For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.
Listening to Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All web sites accessed as of date of publication.
Cézanne, Paul. The Letters of Paul Cézanne. Edited and translated by Alex Danchev. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.
Lethbridge, Robert. “The End of the Affair: Zola and Cézanne.” French Studies Bulletin 35, no. 133 (Winter 2014). https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/frebul/ktu026.
Musée d’Orsay. “Paul Cézanne, La femme à la cafetière.” Musée d’Orsay. https://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/collections/catalogue-des-oeuvres/notice.html?nnumid=1485.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Émile Zola,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Zola.
⸻, s.v. “Paul Cézanne,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Cézanne.
Zola, Émile. The Masterpiece. Translated by Thomas Walton, revised by Roger Pearson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.