Cézanne and those astonishing apples

Cezanne - Still Life with Basket (Kitchen Table) 1890-95

Paul Cézanne, Kitchen Still Life, c. 1890, Musée d’Orsay

Just returned from the Art Gallery of Hamilton‘s new exhibition “The World is an Apple:  the Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne” and can’t stop smiling at the fact that such an exciting show has been mounted in our very own art gallery in our very own city.  The exhibition is curated by the Art Gallery’s Dr. Benedict Leca and contains almost 20 works by the Post-Impressionist master as well as related works by other artists.  It is accompanied by a handsome exhibition catalogue and there are lots of tours and talks coming up.  For more information click on


Cézanne is a particular darling of artists and art historians and there are whole libraries of weighty, well-researched books written about him.  But for those with just a slightly-more-than passing interest in art and artists, here are a couple of things that you need to know to help you enjoy a visit to the gallery.

The apple, for instance, is probably the most heavily freighted symbolic fruit in western culture — beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, or course.  And then, there is also the Greek mythology of the three goddesses vying for the golden apple and “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, and so on, etc., etc.  Fortunately you can forget all of the above when viewing this exhibition because Cézanne had no interest whatsoever in the symbolic aspects of the apple.  He chose that particular fruit because it was plentiful and cheap and because of its shape and for no other reason whatsoever. (I do remember reading somewhere that he didn’t even eat the apples, because he painted so slowly and thoughtfully that the fruit was always rotten before he got finished.)

Anyway, Cézanne painted extraordinary portraits and wonderful, scintillating landscapes as well as still lifes, but it is the still lifes that show us most clearly why he is mythologized as the progenitor of modern art.  (With the landscapes and portraits other, more complex considerations creep in.)  The simple, humble objects that make up the content of the still lifes make it easier to see how Cézanne was preoccupied with “formal” problems — that is painterly problems that have to do with line, colour, shapes and space.  Because his father was a banker, Cézanne inherited a huge amount of money and unlike other artists such as Monet and Renoir, he didn’t need to worry about selling his paintings.  He thus was able to retire to the Provençal countryside where he spent his time painting and worrying about problems of perception and illusion and the meaning of “art”.

For instance, one of the issues that painters had grappled with for hundreds of years was the fact that painting something that looked “real” actually involved learning a lot of tricks.  This is because when we see a three-dimensional object (such as an apple), our brain, not our eye, tells us that it has a front and back and occupies a sort of pocket of space.  When we paint that object on a flat two-dimensional canvas (or paper), the space disappears and the object becomes flat brushstrokes of varying colour.  Artists had long ago learned how to trick us into perceiving the painted object as being three-dimensional, by creating the illusion of light shining on it.  And they also knew how to fool us into seeing deep space by changing the sizes of the objects depicted. Cézanne decried this sort of trickery (you can’t really paint “light”, for instance) and tried to achieve the same effects by using more painterly tools such as colour and brushstrokes as sort of building blocks.  Light, he felt was a much too transient a quality to provide a firm foundation for a significant, long-lasting art.

Another thing that artists had learned to do was how to make a pleasant, balanced composition by arranging objects in harmonious groupings across the plane of the canvas.  Cézanne took this compositional approach further by attempting harmonious arrangements not only across the flat plane of the canvas, but also from back to front, from depth to frontal plane.  So you might want to notice how shapes and forms are re-iterated, how colours are matched in the foreground and the background and how some edges are outlined in black while others seem to bleed or blend into each other.  The subjects of the painting are knitted or woven together across the plane of the canvas so that the whole image is a beautifully arranged, complex tapestry of background and foreground, colours and shapes.  It’s Cézanne’s concentration on pictorial problems, on form, structure and stability, that led later artists to 20th century experiments such as cubism and geometric abstraction. (To see where Cézanne’s experiments led, for instance, check out the McMaster Museum of Art‘s small, beautiful still life by Émile Bernard which is also on view.)


Émile Bernard, Still Life with Cup and Bowl of Fruit, 1887, McMaster Museum of Art

But I know you!!  Looking at all of this fruit will be making you hungry.  Fortunately it is the beginning of apple season and there is bounty available so that you can feast more than your eyes.  Here’s a delicious and very rich soup to enjoy after seeing the exhibition.  Make it ahead of time and all you need is some crusty bread to accompany it for a late supper.

Chicken Soup with Apples and Leeks

from Gourmet magazine, October, 1993


1/4 cup unsalted butter

3 lb chicken, quartered

3 leeks, trimmed, leaving 1 inch of the green part, split lengthwise, washed well and sliced thin

2 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith applescezannecalvados

1 cup apple juice

1/2 cup vinegar

3 cups chicken both

3 tablespoons Calvados, if desired

1/2 cup heavy cream


1)  Melt 2 tbsp. of the butter over moderate heat, add the chicken, patted dry and seasoned with salt and pepper, cook it skin side down for 8 minutes.  Turn the chicken, cook it for 5 minutes more and transfer it to a bowl.

2)  Discard the butter, add the rest of the butter and cook the leeks over moderate heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.

3)  Return the chicken to the kettle, add the apples, peeled and cut into half inch pieces, the apple juice, the vinegar and the broth.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, skimming off any fat or froth and gently simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.

4)  Transfer the chicken to a bowl and let it cool.  Discard the skin and the bones and cut into bite-size pieces.

5)  Skim the fat from the broth mixture, stir in the Calvados, the cream, the chicken and salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer for two minutes and serve.

My Notes:

The Calvados, LCB0 #296228, is hideously expensive and 40 percent alcohol.  You don’t really need it, but you may want to buy it as an “investment.”  Suit yourself.




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