One of Gauguin’s favourite paintings was Cézanne’s Still Life with Compotier, Glass and Apple, (1879–80, Museum of Modern Art, New York), which he acquired for his own collection around 1880.
This still life is a homage to that picture, and repeats many of its elements: the fruit, the pottery, the rumpled tablecloth and the angled knife at the lower right. The truncated diagonal brushstrokes and the flattened perspective, in which foreground and distance are collapsed together, are also reminiscent of Cézanne’s work.
The narrow strip at the top of the painting – a dense arrangement of buildings – is something of an enigma. The inclusion of a frame suggests that it is a view from a window, but there is no continuity between the clearly defined larger scene and the smaller blurred image next to it. No specific view has yet been identified, and it looks more like a cityscape than rural Brittany, where Gauguin was spending extended periods of time when this was painted.
Around 1880, when Gauguin was enjoying some prosperity as a stockbroker in Paris, he bought six paintings by Cézanne, of which Still Life with Compotier, Glass and Apple (1879–80, Museum of Modern Art, New York) seems to have been his favourite. He described it as ‘an exceptional pearl, the apple of my eye’. Even when he left most of his collection in Copenhagen in 1883 when he parted from his Danish wife, he took this picture back to Paris with him, and he refused to sell it until he was desperate for money towards the end of his life.
Gauguin spent extended periods of time in Brittany in the late 1880s and early 1890s in search of a more ‘primitive’, simpler way of life than that offered by Paris, and new sources of inspiration. When he travelled to Brittany in 1890 he brought along his Cézanne picture, and included it in the background of A Portrait of a Woman (Art Institute of Chicago) painted that year. He probably painted this still life at about the same time as a further homage to Cézanne. It repeats many of the elements in Cézanne’s still life, such as the fruit, the pottery, the rumpled tablecloth and the angled knife at the lower right, which is almost a direct quotation from that picture.
By the 1880s, Cézanne was emerging as the leading French avant-garde artist, and other aspiring artists needed to show that they understood and had absorbed his work. At the time Gauguin was moving away from Impressionism, with its emphasis on painting techniques that captured transient natural phenomena, and searching for a more structured approach to his work. He may have felt that Cézanne pointed the way towards an art with more rigour. The truncated diagonal brushstrokes and the flattened perspective, in which foreground and distance are collapsed together, certainly seem to be taken from Cézanne. The curiously two-dimensional tankard may be one that was made locally; it looks like the kind of drinking vessel used by the Breton peasants and fishermen among whom Gauguin was living.
The thin strip at the top of the picture – a dense arrangement of roof tops – is something of an enigma. The inclusion of a frame suggests that it is meant to represent a view from a window, but there is none of the continuity between the clearly defined larger scene and the smaller blurred image next to it that one would expect. Furthermore, the buildings look more like a cityscape than a small Breton village. No specific location has yet been identified, however, and this assembly of geometrical shapes may even have been a purely imaginary tribute to Cézanne’s landscapes, which often feature buildings closely packed together.
The artist’s characteristic signature ‘P Go’, which he began to use around this time, is placed upside down in the lower left corner. There is no obvious reason for this, but perhaps Gauguin intended to make it seem as though it were carved into the table top.
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