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Cezanne Drawing at MoMA

Article by Jennifer Vignone

Returning to a master for a fresh look at a changing world

Museum of Modern Art: Cezanne Drawing

From June 6 to September 25, 2021, the Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition of over 250 of Cezanne’s drawings and watercolors. It was a perfectly timed exhibition. COVID-19 was forcing a reexamination of life — the time we think we have, how we spend that time, the surprise of grief and endings, and the struggle to find and maintain meaning. MoMA visually examined this at the artist’s level — seeking truth through lines, form and color. The exhibition demonstrated how Cezanne’s work remains relevant throughout times of intense change in art and in the world.

Paul Cezanne was born on January 19, 1839 and died on October 22, 1906. He was a French artist and was considered a Post-Impressionist painter. Cezanne heralded a new way of seeing that Picasso and Braque would later take up as Cubism, laying the foundation for what would inspire the concept of “modern art.” Picasso is reputed to have stated that Cezanne "is the father of us all" as he bridged art’s transition from the 19th to the 20th century.

Drawing is the intellectual process of making decisions of what the artist sees and commits to the drawn space. Cezanne grappled with the world around him as he translated what he saw to paper. Initially, this made some of the works appear awkward and hesitant as broken lines clung together to form a complete image. Roger Fry said in his book, “Cezanne, a Study of His Development” (1958 The Noonday Press), that the artist was not perfect, that no one was “less assured than Cezanne. He often feels his way so cautiously that we should call him timid were it not that his tentatives proves his desperate courage in the face of an elusive theme.”

In today’s turbulent times, his technique is even more apropos. Cezanne’s method of repeating and breaking parallel and perpendicular lines to create form and volume scratch away to see what lies beneath the surface of the paper. The sense of exploration, the determination of the artist, and the revelations made about the subject — are part of the discovery process. Lines that cease to fit are like bits of the world and ourselves breaking off — fragments of potential realized and not realized mixed with the possibility of what may come.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

After Pierre Puget: Milo of Crotona (D’après Pierre Puget: Milon de Crotone), c. 1882-1885

Page XLVII from the CP I sketchbook. Pencil on wove paper, 7 11/16 × 4 11/16" (19.6 × 11.9 cm)

The Whitworth, The University of Manchester. Bequeathed by Karsten Schubert in 2020.

Photo, J.Vignone.

PIERRE PUGET (French, 1620-1694)

Milo of Croton, 1671-82

Marble, height 269 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

no copyright infringement is intended.

Cezanne’s work includes studies made from sculpture and other artists’ work. In an early drawing, “After Pierre Puget: Milo of Crotona,” Cezanne’s lines recreate the drama of the Puget’s figures as they dance in a broken flurry to form images from curves and patches of dark and light bundles of lines. The inability to contain the top and bottom of the sculpture within the boundaries of the paper emphasize the emotion and dynamism of the figures. The drawing becomes its own entity, Cezanne’s rendition of the scene.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

The Rape (Homme barbu; Le Viol, esquisse), 1868-1870. Page from the BSA sketchbook.

Pencil on wove paper, 4 1/16 × 6 3/4"

Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett. Photo, J.Vignone

Other early works examine violent themes. In the drawing, “The Rape,” twisted, frenzied lines energize the anger of the attacker and terror of the attacked. The woman’s eyes are blackened, broken curves that convey horror and invasion. Angled zigzag lines surround the pair as the male figure envelops the female. They tilt toward the viewer, forcing the eyes to fix on the scene in voiceless witness to the crime. Cezanne captures the powerlessness of the violation.

To appreciate the value of these drawings today, it is important to look at their history and how Cezanne viewed the world “then” and how his vision is perceived “now”. It is beyond appreciating the talent and skill of an artist. It is how that work continues to translate its significance across time and relate to what lies within each of us – how our lives are our creations, without the pen to paper. The trails some of us leave will never be written down or captured in the way others live – whose every stroke, note, victory, or ruling are a recorded legacy. The wonder of Cezanne is his accessibility on so many levels that we can tap into this universal voice. No line is unimportant, nothing erased, nothing cast aside. The result is drawings that may seem rough, unfinished, or even a mess. However, it mirrors the poetry of life as the sinews of lines find each other, breaking apart to find another, to complete a visual thought. Over time, the wisdom of that struggle in his drawings becomes more apparent, not just as we stand before them, but as we realize the impact his images have had on helping others find their own path. We are meant to get lost in those markings and see the similarity in our own struggles and in our own lives.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

Bust of Madame Cézanne (Tête et épaules de madame Cézanne et fruit rond), 1884-1885

Page XXXIII from the CP II sketchbook. Pencil on wove paper 8 9/16 × 4 7/8". National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. Photo, J.Vignone

Portraits of intimate subjects show the viewer how the decisions the artist makes indicate not only that artist’s journey but the energy and feeling emanating from the subject. In “Bust of Madame Cézanne,” the patchwork of lines creates a feeling of gentleness as well as distance. In this portrait of the artist’s wife, one can sense the push and pull of a relationship and an “aloneness” within oneself that no relationship can reach. The focus on just the head, the center of thought, mimicking the round orb at the bottom of the drawing, contributes to a sense of aloofness.

Jodi Hauptman, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, commented, "Drawings often are closer to the mind and the hand of the artist….And they were especially intimate for Cézanne, who was working in these sketchbooks all the time and carrying them with him." (, “The artist as searcher: Cézanne works on paper”,

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

Waking Up (La Réveil), 1900-04. Pencil and watercolor on wove paper, 17 1/4 × 12 1/4"

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Photo, J.Vignone

In works like the pencil and watercolor “Waking Up,” Cezanne’s curvilinear lines sweep across the paper, defining the woman’s body as she is roused from her dreams. Her attendant stands protectively by her side. The scene is not entirely peaceful however, as fragments of color break across the surface visually capturing the moment between sleep and wakefulness. Cezanne’s lines struggle with both worlds to find a point in space where there is solidity but always with a nod to the ambiguity in meaning.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

Apples and Pears (Pommes et poires), 1882-1885. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 8 7/16 × 12 5/8"

Private collection, New York. Photo, J.Vignone.

The drama and uncertainty of the human world is also found in Cezanne’s still lifes. They are deceptively solid. In the early work, “Apples and Pears” (1882-1885), the arrangement of fruit at first appears like a conversation among people as they walk along. The fruit are shaped and colored similarly, giving a stable, harmonious overall effect. However, the broken patches of color and shorter to longer lines infuse the composition with a disquieting energy. The pear on the right, with a hint of space between it and the rest of the touching fruit, creates a subtle feeling of isolation.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

Still Life with Apples, Pears, and a Pot (Pommes, poires et casserole [La

table de cuisine]), 1900-1904. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 10 1/4 × 17 11/16"

Musée d'Orsay, held in the Musée du Louvre, département des arts graphiques, Paris. Photo, J.Vignone.

In a later work, “Still life with Apples, Pears, and a Pot,” Cezanne’s lines converge to form solid everyday objects. Lines and curves come together energetically to create the sense of purpose and posture. Color is used to emphasize their distinct presence as light bounces from fruit to fruit, adding to the visual conversation. Everything sits across the table with a sense of determination. However, not all is quiet as the eye roams across the objects on the paper. The line angles, curves, horizontals and verticals project restlessness that pulls us in and pushes us out.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906)

Still Life with Apples (Pommes), c. 1878. Oil on canvas, 7 1/2 × 10 1/2"

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. Lent by the Provost and Fellows of King's

College (Keynes collection). Photo, J.Vignone.

Now we contrast the drawing with a painting of a similar scene. The oil painting, “Still Life with Apples” is a small but powerful still life. The fruit realized in paint has a weight and firmness that the drawing lacks. The painted fruit appear as more mature versions of the drawn fruit with a different sense of anticipation.

PAUL CÉZANNE (French, 1839–1906) The Bend in the Road (Route tournante), 1902-1906 Pencil and watercolor on paper, 22 1/16 × 16 9/16" Esther Grether Family Collection. Photo, J.Vignone.

In the later work, “The Bend in the Road,” Cezanne uses pencil and watercolor in fractured brushstrokes, color patches, and lines, to create a landscape/lifetime coming to a juncture. The road itself is open and flat as the path in some ways is clear – the route that ultimately will be taken. But around the artist and the viewer the strokes and bursts of color remind us of our past, present, and the unknown bend that lies ahead.

MoMA’s exhibition showed how Cezanne’s work remains relevant through the fact that the meaning it had at the time it was created is retained in its historic context as well as what it has become at the present time. Cezanne’s drawings and watercolors show his process and the continuous search for understanding an object, place, or being. His repetitive exploration of the same themes to fully explore them brings new intimacy and knowledge. Interspersed with the works on paper were some of the paintings into which they eventually developed, showing when the process finds its end result on canvas. For Cezanne, drawing was a way to inspect the world to find what lay within. And that is ultimately the universal outer world and inner search we all go through. Cezanne’s works on paper visualize that struggle and give a place to acknowledge that part in all of us.


Roger Fry, “Cezanne, a Study of His Development”, copyright 1958, The Noonday Press.

Jodi Hauptman, “The artist as searcher: Cézanne works on paper”,,


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