Paul Cezanne’s The Basket of Apples

Paul Cezanne is traditionally considered as an artist who formed the transition from the 19th century art to a radical and experimental artistic endeavor of the 20th century. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Cezanne did not keep a journal, and his correspondence is largely composed of salutations and requests for painting supplies (Badt, 12). Unlike the flamboyant Picasso little about his personal life was ever made public.

However, art experts and art historians are fortunate, to have some letters from the painter’s last years which present enough of his theoretical concerns, if not of his actual theories, to offer them some directions for research into his works.

Particularly, his correspondence plays a pivotal role in understanding of Cezanne’s still life artistic work and artistic theory. This paper aims to analyze and interpret Cezanne’s famous work The Basket of Apples (ca.

1893) (see Figure 1) and reveal how this work conforms to artist’s philosophical views on nature and still life.

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Cezanne’s The Basket of Apples has been finished in 1983, a time traditionally referred by art historians as Cezanne’s maturity period. During that period in his correspondence Cezanne made frequent use of volatile term “realization” as the means and end of his art (Geist, 9). The term first appeared in Cezanne’s letters in the 1870s, and in his earliest remarks he referred to the need to realize “sensations” and “impressions” (Geist, 9).

Around 1895 he spoke of “realisation sur nature” as practiced in the techniques of modulation and condensation; and finally in 1900 he arrived at the phrase “realization of the motif” and used this formula to explain not only his current practice but also to defend earlier methods and to explicate earlier paintings (Badt, 31-32).

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During his maturity stage, Cezanne focused on creating new and “fresh” patterns (images) that could make up a repertory of rhythms expressive of “the lyricism of the rebirth of existence” and could be used in turn as more precise correlates for his own aesthetic temperament living through this lyricism (Loran, 29).

According to Coplans, the new images were developed not by studying nature and its effects, but by “the most minute investigation of the effects produced by his painting materials-the colors and textures of his color reliefs-aimed at discovering the synthesizing, stabilizing, ordering, and signifying tendencies of his temperament in transcending nature” (Coplans, 51). During this stage of his theoretical development, he referred to his experiments as attempts to “realiser sur nature” even though the resultant realization was attained by and through his medium (Loran, 20).

Cezanne’s “realiser sur nature” evidently manifests itself in artists’ still life, particularly in his The Basket of Apples. Meyer Schapiro in his analysis of Cezanne’s still life says, “The objects chosen for still-life painting – the table with food and drink, the vessels, the musical instruments, the pipe and tobacco…flowers, skull, etc. – belong to specific fields of value: the private, the domestic, the gustatory, the convivial, the artistic, the vocation and avocation, decorative and sumptuous” (Schapiro, 19).

Therefore, according to Schapiro, for Cezanne to paint a still-life is to suggest a kind of world-view, a reality steeped in an understanding of the “value” and significance of the modes of dwelling in the world ((Schapiro, 19). A good illustration of this artistic philosophy can be found in one of Cezanne’s most luminous and tightly organized still-lifes, The Basket of Apples of 1983. The canvas is covered with strokes of basically the same shape, texture and size, producing a homogeneous mosaic-like surface.

These slightly arching strokes are fitted together, as if hinged, into a screen-like design; like screens, the strokes form the surfaces of each object, whether concave, convex or flat, by altering their parametrical direction. Not only does this neutralizing facture render all objects alike in their surface and compositional qualities but it also prevents any qualitative distinction in the treatment of non-objects, like empty space or shadows.

Whether inanimate or animate as presences, the cold glass of a bottle or the fragile flesh of an apple, the stationary plate or the slightly shifting basket receive the same treatment in their qualitative formulas. All objects are converted into patterns of tactile vision and presented as plastic images whose interpenetration is achieved in the homogeneous texture of the canvas surface.

No diverse repertory of color formulas is used in these patterned strokes; the colors all perform the same function of hinging together the tactile space so that it, and not the assemblage of objects/composes the situation to which the world is reduced by the painter’s aesthetic activities. The colors here do not describe independent and substantial aspects of things; they are used to articulate the world’s qualitative response to a concentrated act of aesthetic attention. Colors fill in the tactile space with sequences of modulated tones that visually preserve the objects at a proximate distance as if sculpted.

In this painting, the graduated arrangements are organized by using adjacent blends from the colored spectrum of the rainbow. The impression is that the apples represent patterns of rainbow-arch shaped strokes filled with warm colors (red/orange/yellow/green in various combinations and tonal emphases). All of these individual patterns are harmonized within the integral structure of the composition. The location of individual patterns can affect their color formulas, as can the equilibrium of the quadrants of the composition require the repetition of certain colored patterns at certain sites.

The pervasive symmetry of the tonal patterning is most evident in the imagery that takes up the largest areas of space, such as the draped cloth and the wall. These areas are made to appear different in their overall color arrangement as contiguous patterns come into contact with each other. While the color formulas in the painting are derived from careful and logical plotting by locality and spatial symmetry, the overarching compositional plan is just as apparent.

The limited repertory of colored patterns (essentially restricted to cool or warm adjacent blends) results in the creation of a subtle rhythm of chromatic repetitions and counter-repetitions throughout the painting. Like the homogeneity produced on the surface of the canvas by the repeating brushstrokes, the colors themselves are by necessity distributed rhythmically throughout the surface; consequently they too transcend mere descriptive analysis and become expressive of an interpenetration of all the elements of this tactile space that characteristically illuminates the objects from the inside.

The rainbow patterns of The Basket of Apples emerge from an abstraction that closes and restricts expressiveness without limiting its expressive value, an abstraction that avoids excessive subjectivity and perceptual effulgence and that, by virtue of its non-conventional status, can be said to arise from a preexisting imaginative schema that contains all its correlates. These correlates emerge within the logic of the modulations as poetic equivalences gathered together in the collection of rainbow patterns.

Within their range of selective and combinatory tactile/visual relations, the rainbow patterns can be read as a syntax of colored strokes based not only on contiguous connections, but also on comparative connections that can be added to, and accentuate, the metonymies of similarly modulated objects. A very interesting rainbow pattern to trace in its metonymic dispersal, in this still-life, makes use of almost full color spectrum of the rainbow. It appears within the shadowy depths of the folds of draped cloth, also as the prevalent pattern of the bottle, and on the shades on the wall.

By sharing the same modulated pattern, all of these images are connected within a dynamic schema. The cloth, the bottle and the plate all participate in the cosmic perfection of the complete rainbow pattern, with its other-worldly luminosity and vaulting arch which surges from the earth and encloses the sky. The rainbow, in its own ethereal form, affirms that the objects in the still-life have both transitory and enduring qualities; they are, like the rainbow, more than mere inanimate objects, for their qualitative intensity identifies with the perennial energies of life.

These rainbow patterns do not depict the bruise in a petal of a dying flower or the curling edge of a leaf in a harvested vine, nor do they assign its qualities to the slow drip of wax from a burning candle or to the sheen of dust on an open book. The rainbow patterns find embodiment instead in common, man-made things, tools for living. The cloth spreads its length and mediates between surfaces: covering, protecting, consecrating the site with its presence. The bottle embraces the unembraceability of the liquid: holding, preserving and presenting it.

The wall, like the linen cloth, provides a new, unfamiliar setting that, in this case, provides a background of abstract spots. As a metonymic chain, these images activated by the shared rainbow patterning suggest another set of references, this time metaphoric, that are present only in their traces, that is, in the constitutive pattern of the rainbow which is their common analogue. The rainbow thus frames an imaginary landscape and makes visible the mountain in the cloth and the ocean in the bottle.

The rainbow is operative within this setting as an underlying dynamic schema that makes present the vital forces of the interior/exterior world; in the equivalence of the interior and exterior forces, Cezanne realizes a set of metaphoric implications that overflow the metonymies, but without superficially vitalizing colors and textures. The metonymies in this still-life activate the schema of modulated abstractions by enhancing and multiplying their signifying potential, but always within the limits that the painter draws by subordinating his empathetic projection of metaphors to a restrictive, though still poetic, abstracting purpose.


Badt, Kurt. The Art of Cezanne. Translated by Sheila Ogilvie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965 Coplans, John. Cezanne’s Watercolors. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie, 1976. Geist, Sidney. “The Secret Life of Paul Cezanne. ” Art International 19, November, pp. 7-16, 1975 Loran, Erie. Cezanne’s Composition. Third edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963 Schapiro, Meyer. Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, New York: George Braziller, 1968

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Paul Cezanne’s The Basket of Apples. (2017, Jan 08). Retrieved from

Paul Cezanne’s The Basket of Apples

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