Arts Curriculum

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Plate of Peaches, 1879-80. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser 78.2514.4

Paul Cézanne’s (b. 1839, Aix-en-Provence, France; d. 1906, Aix-en-Provence) complex still lifes are an important part of his quest for empirical truth in painting. Because these inanimate objects did not move, like human subjects might, during the painting sessions, and they were available any time of day or night, they were an ideal subject for a slow-working, analytical artist like Cézanne. Sometimes the fruit or flowers he used would wither and die before the painting was completed and would need to be replaced by paper flowers and artificial fruit.

His work was motivated by a desire to give sculptural weight and volume to everyday objects. In Cézanne’s still lifes ambiguities abound. As if by magic, the tablecloth we see in Still Life: Plate of Peaches is able to levitate several pieces of fruit without any visible means of support. The use of mixed perspectives adds to the precarious effect. Everything is as tentative and perplexing as it is stable and tangible (Matthew Drutt, ed., Thannhauser: The Thannhauser Collection of
the Guggenheim Museum
[New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2001], p. 45).

Cézanne painted almost 200 still lifes, focusing on simple household items. He loved the rich colors and basic shapes of fruit. He also liked the challenge of creating a great painting using everyday objects. He appreciated fruits and flowers as the products of nature, as well as common domestic objects like pitchers, jars, and bottles, which he felt held an admirable sense of craftsmanship (Henri Lallemand, Cézanne: Visions of a Great Painter [New York:
Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1994], p. 88).

“I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he once said (“Cezanne’s Astonishing Apples,” Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Cézanne set up his still lifes with great care. A testimony by an acquaintance describes his method of preparing a still life: “No sooner was the cloth draped on the table with innate taste than Cézanne set out the peaches in such a way as to make the complementary colors vibrate, grays next to reds, yellows to blues, leaning, tilting, balancing the fruit at the angles he wanted, sometimes pushing a onesous or two-sous piece [French coins] under them. You could see from the care he took how much it delighted his eye” (Lallemand, Cézanne, p. 88). But when he began to paint, the picture might change in unusual ways. Cézanne seems to be painting from several different positions at once. He believed that the beauty of the whole painting was more important than anything else—even more important than the correctness of the rendering (Robert Burleigh, Paul Cézanne: A Painter’s Journey [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006], p. 18).

Pablo Picasso, born 42 years after Cézanne, said, “My one and only master . . . Cézanne was like the father of us all.” Cézanne is therefore often described as the “father of modern art” (Karen Rosenberg, “Maverick, You Cast a Giant Shadow,” review ofCézanne and Beyond at Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York Times, March 5, 2009, Art and Design section).

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Plate of Peaches, 1879-80. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser 78.2514.4

  • Look carefully at this work. What do you notice?
  • What would it be like to bite into one of these peaches? Are they ripe? Do they have an aroma? How might they taste? Write a short paragraph about that experience. Then share it with your classmates. Do you have similar or different ideas?
  • The bluish wallpaper with sprays of leaves found in the background of this still life appears in fourteen of Cézanne's still life paintings (John Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 1 [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1996], p. 281). What about it might have appealed to Cézanne?.
  • Cézanne painted this still life more than a century ago. What aspects of it seem familiar and easily understood? Are there also parts of the painting that are puzzling? What is confusing about them?
  • The elements in this painting are simple: a table, white tablecloth, blue ceramic plate, and peaches. Try recreating this still life setup as closely as possible with real objects. Compare your arrangement to Cézanne’s. How are they similar? Describe the areas where Cézanne departed from reality to enhance the impact of the total painting.
Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Plate of Peaches, 1879-80. Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser 78.2514.4



  • For generations the training of artists included copying works by the masters. Copy Cézanne’s painting as closely as you can. Then recreate the still life with real objects and invent a new style to interpret this setup. What did you learn from each experience?
    Visual Arts

  • Cézanne took great care in setting up the still lifes that he would then paint. He might even adjust the angle of an object by propping a coin or two underneath it to slightly change its incline.

    Collect and arrange your still life. In choosing the objects consider their formal characteristics: color, form, and texture, as well as their personal meaning to you. Then carefully assemble the objects you selected into an arrangement. When you arrive at a still life setup that pleases you, draw it, paint it, or photograph it.
    Visual Arts

  • In addition to his still life paintings, Cézanne is also known for his landscapes and portraits. In books or on the Internet research other painting genres that Cézanne worked in. What are the similarities and differences in how Cézanne treated each of these subjects? Which do you prefer? Why?
    Visual Arts

  • Still life had several advantages for Cézanne. It was both traditional and modern. This allowed Cézanne to build on the achievements of the past while pursuing his own unique vision.

    Forbearers of the still life tradition in France include Jean-Baptise- Simeon Chardin (1699–1779), Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), and éduoard Manet (1832–1883). A younger artist, Pablo Picasso, said, “My one and only master . . . Cézanne was like the father of us all.” Research the still life paintings created by these artists and compare them to Cézanne’s. How did Cézanne build on the achievements of the past? Why do you think Picasso referred to him as the “father of us all”?
    Visual Arts

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