Painted in 1877-78, Poires et couteau is an intimate still-life that encapsulates the essence of Cézanne's vision during this period, and displays a boldness of composition that characterised his œuvre. In the late 1870s Cézanne executed several small scale canvases (fig. 1) on the subject of still-life of fruit, some of them depicted on a table-top, others arranged on a plate. In the present work, the elements of the composition are reduced to the absolute essentials: two pears, a red pot and a knife set on a simple, unadorned surface, against a dark background. The simplicity of the arrangement allows the artist to explore the full, rounded shape of the objects, building up their volume through his masterful modulations of colour. The straight, diagonal lines of the knife and the table stand in constrast to the rounded form of the pears and the pot, resulting in a dynamic composition. The vibrant hatching technique visible in the treatment of the pears anticipates his later style, and would culminate several years later in paintings such as Nature morte au compotier (fig. 3).
The genre of still-life preoccupied Cézanne from the earliest days of his career, and the stylistic changes visible in his still-lifes reflect the overall development of his art. During the first decade of his artistic production, he executed a number of still-lifes, romantic in feeling, but based on his close observation of the reality. In the 1870s, his pictorial language became more sophisticated and his compositions more complex. Richard Kendall wrote about Cézanne's paintings from this period: 'By this stage in his career, the still-life had taken on a special significance for [Cézanne], and he was to become one of the most original and dedicated exponents of the form. Far from being just a pretext for picture-making, the groups of apples, pears, cherries or flowers were for Cézanne as much a part of nature's extravagant beauty as the trees and hillsides of Provence, and as likely to produce his 'vibrating sensations' as the landscape itself. According to Joachim Gasquet, who was admittedly given to rather fanciful recollections, Cézanne once claimed to overhear conversations between the fruit he was painting, and approached each item in a group as he would a human portrait' (R. Kendall, Cézanne by Himself, London, 1988, p. 11).
Cézanne's still-lifes have long been recognised as being among his greatest achievements, the works which demonstrate most clearly the innovations that led to the stylistic developments of early twentieth-century art. Both art historians and artists have argued that Cézanne reached the very pinnacle of his genius within the discipline of the still-life, as this genre - unlike portrait or plein air painting - allowed him the greatest time in which to capture his subject. The young painter Louis le Bail described how Cézanne composed a still-life, reflecting the great care and deliberation with which he approached the process: 'Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be, using coins of one or two sous for the purpose. He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions; one guessed it was a feast for him. When he finished, Cézanne explained to his young colleague, "The main thing is the modeling; one should not even say modeling, but modulating"' (quoted in John Rewald, Cézanne: A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 228).
Poires et couteau has an important history, having belonged to some of the most distinguished American collections. In the 1920s it was acquired by Lillie P. Bliss (1864-1931), one of three founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The present work and several Cézanne's masterpieces from the Bliss collection were bequethed to the Museum after her death, and accessioned in 1934 to form the foundation of its collection. Rona Roob wrote: 'Lillie's enthusiasm for Cézanne's work never wavered. Between 1920 and 1926, she purchased six more of his paintings through Marius de Zayas, a Mexican artist turned dealer who had learned the art business as a protegé of Stieglitz: the large and important Bather (ca. 1885) [...] and two small gems, Pears and Knife (1877-78) [the present work] and Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl and Orange' (R. Roob, 'A Noble Legacy', in Art in America, 1st November 2003). Some time after the Museum sold Poires at couteau, it was acquired by Charles S. Payson and his wife Joan Whitney Payson, a prominent American philanthropist and patron of the arts. As an avid collector, Joan Whitney Payson purchased primarily works by French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and American painters, and bequethed significant works by artists including Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Sisley and Bonnard to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Poires et couteau has remained in her family to this day.
Oil on canvas
New York, Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer Exhibition, 1926
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Andover, Massachusetts, Addison Gallery of American Art & Indianapolis, John Herron Art Institute, Memorial Exhibition: The Collection of the Late Miss Lizzie P. Bliss, 1931-32, no. 3, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Fruit and Knife)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Works by Cézanne, 1934, no. 6 (as dating from 1876-78)
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, The Lillie P. Bliss Collection, 1934, no. 3, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1876-78)
New York, Arnold Seligman-Helft Galleries, French Still-life from Chardin to Cézanne, 1947, no. 4 (as dating from circa 1880)
London, Lefevre Gallery, XIX and XX Century French Paintings, 1957, no. 2, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1879-82)
Kyoto, Municipal Museum & Tokyo, Isetan Museum of Art, The Joan Whitney Payson Collection, 1980, no. 36, illustrated in the catalogue
Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection & Boston, Museum of Fine Art, Impressionist Still Life, 2001-02, no. 47
20 by 31cm. 7 7/8 by 12 1/4 in.
Lionello Venturi, Cézanne, son art - son oeuvre, Paris, 1936, vol. I, no. 349, catalogued p. 141; vol. II, no. 349, illustrated pl. 97 (as dating from 1879-82)
Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1942, no. 86, catalogued p. 30
Alfonso Gatto & Sandra Orienti, L'Opera completa di Cézanne, Milan, 1970, no. 464, illustrated p. 108 (as dating from 1879-82)
Herbert Henkels, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, vol. 41, no. 3-4, 1993, fig. 163, illustrated p. 261
John Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne. A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, vol. I, no. 347, catalogued p. 232; vol. II, no. 347, illustrated p. 109
Ambroise Vollard, Paris
Cornelis Hoogendijk, Amsterdam
Paul Rosenberg, Paris
Charles Vignier, Paris
Marius de Zayas, Paris & New York
Lillie P. Bliss, New York (acquired from the above)
Museum of Modern Art, New York (Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, 1931. Sale: Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 11th May 1944, lot 77)
Mr & Mrs Jacques Helft, New York (acquired by 1947)
M. Knoedler & Co., New York
Mr & Mrs Charles S. Payson, New York
Joan Whitney Payson, New York (by inheritance from the above)
Thence by descent to the present owners
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