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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire

Paul Cezanne, a Post-Impressionist artist, painted Mount Saint-Victoire repeatedly, creating a unique visual language. His work, while appearing unfinished, challenged traditional landscape painting by emphasizing brush strokes and color over atmospheric perspective. His approach influenced future artists like Braque and Picasso, and redefined Western painting. Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04, oil on canvas, 73 x 91.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • starky tree style avatar for user Ines Serrano
    Throughout the lectures on Impressionism, Dr. Zucker and Dr. Harris repeatedly use the term "optical," rather than "visual," when describing the type of subjective experience the Impressionists sought to document. Is there a difference between the two, and why is the one used in place of the other?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:That is a good question (and thank you David for your generous invitation). We could have used the word visual, and that would have worked nicely, but the word optical does have a benefit in that it suggests the experiments in optics that were then taking place and that were informing artists at this time. For example, the French scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul published The Laws of Contrast of Color in 1861 and the American Ogden Nicholas Rood who lectured on optics in painting published the influential book, Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry in the 1870s which was quickly translated into French.
      (10 votes)

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Paul Cezanne is probably best known for two things, his still-lifes with apples, and his landscapes of a mountain in the south of France, in Provence, known as Mount Saint-Victoire. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And we're looking at a painting of Mount Saint-Victoire here in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that dates to 1902-04. It's interesting to think about Cezanne painting this mountain over and over again, but also painting each painting of the mountain over an extended period of time. Normally we think about impressionism as paintings that are done onsite, rather rapidly. But this is decidedly different. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Paul Cezanne is often grouped with Gauguin and Van Gogh and Searat, and called a Post-Impressionist, but he began his career exhibiting with the impressionists in Paris. He moved back to the area that he grew up in, in the South of France later in his life. And this painting was made in the last few years of his life. He would die just two years after it was completed. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And it's funny to talk about this painting being completed, because it feels unfinished. There are places where we see the canvass underneath or buildings that seem to be taking shape. There are trees that seem to be half formed. Even the mountain itself seems to be, almost in the process of forming. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We can clearly read a mountain, a sky, clouds, trees, farmland, and buildings, but at the same time, if we look too closely, they all fall apart and they are all formed of a series of hash marks that create a sense of optical movement and change. To think about historically, what it means for an artist to do this with landscape. From the 17th Century forward, painters like Poussin or Claude, had been deeply concerned with creating space that was believable and Cezanne seems to be here directly attacking that tradition. He's creating wipe has been referred to as a curtain of paint. The paint is so present throughout the surface of the canvass. In the sky, in the foreground, that all of it rises up to the surface. All of it announces its two dimensionality that it is on a vertical plain. - [Dr. Beth Harris] The whole tradition of landscape painting, and even the academic tradition in France of painting generally, is about high finish. Not seeing the brush strokes which are so emphatically present here. But, to me, I'm not sure that he is attacking that tradition so much as being true to his own personal vision as he stood in front of this landscape. Here is is, the end of the 19th Century, the early years of the 20th Century, Impressionism has happened, this idea of depicting your own sensations or subjective optical experience in front of the landscape. And I think that's a big part of this for him. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] There is an intimacy of vision. Of a man that has spent a lifetime looking at this mountain from these vantage points and is understanding his own visual experience. And inventing a visual language to portray that experience. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Cezanne will be really important for Cubism. If we think about a painting like Braque's Viaduct at L'Estaque. You can see how Braque is thinking about the forms in terms of geometric shapes. And we have some sense of that here. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] But where Braque and Picasso will really fully open up form, what we have here is Cezanne just beginning to investigate what it means to break contour. For example, at the houses in the foreground. We can see the way in which the color of the field enters into the area that should be just the red of the roof. It's just a subtle opening up of form, ever so slightly. Whereas Braque and Picasso will dismantle form almost completely. - [Dr. Beth Harris] So from the hindsight of the 20th Century, we see this as an affirmation of the flatness of the canvass. A denying of the illusionism that was such an important part of Western paining beginning in the Renaissance. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] We shouldn't say complete denial because we can still see the mountain in the background. We can still see the foreground of the hills before and we can still see the brush immediately below our feet as we look from an adjacent hilltop. Nevertheless, all the subtle cues that had built up in landscape painting in the centuries before have been left out. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Normally we would expect to see atmospheric perspective. We would expect to see the sky and mountains in the distance fading and becoming less bright in color, less clear in their focus. But in that way Cezanne is treating every part of this canvas in the same way. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Instead of using atmospheric perspective to create a sense of form, the artist is simple delineating distance by choice of color. We have these blue-browns in the foreground. We have reds and greens in the middle-ground, and we have blues in the most distant area. But it is a kind of arbitrary association of place with color. And Cezanne is able to create an even greater degree of ambiguity by bringing color from one realm into the other. Look for instance, at the way that Cezanne takes the gray-purple from the immediate foreground and builds that into the sky. So that when we see those colors in relationship to each other, that sky comes forward. - [Dr. Beth Harris] So what we have here is an investigation of landscape that's very different than what the impressionists were doing. This is not about capturing the transitory effect of light and atmosphere. This seems to be about something more permanent. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And what Cezanne is after, it seems to me, is a tension between the deeper session that we expect and a radical confrontation with the two dimensionality of the surface. (piano music)