Lucien Pissarro​ , Camille Pissarro’s eldest son, was barely into his teens in the mid 1870s when Paul Cézanne came to live nearby. Nonetheless he retained strong memories of the time, and many years later his brother Paul-Émile wrote down these sentences at Lucien’s dictation:

Cézanne lived in Auvers, and he used to walk three kilometres to come and work with father. They discussed theories endlessly, and one day bought palette knives to paint with. Several pictures remain of the work they did at this time. They are very similar in treatment and the motifs are often the same. One morning, father was painting in a field and Cézanne was sitting on the grass watching him. A peasant came along and said to father: ‘Your workman over there isn’t putting in much effort!’

The final anecdote is good, and the fact that a peasant appears in it not incidental. But two phrases seem crucial: ‘They discussed theories endlessly’ and ‘Cézanne was sitting on the grass watching him.’ The first suggests that the interaction between the painters was verbal as well as pictorial, and that the two of them were conscious that something intense and difficult – something that demanded verbal clarification as it happened – was at stake in the painting they did together. Theory came up, maybe concerning the nature of painting, even the nature of perception, and never seemed to stop. Looking back, this doesn’t surprise us. We go on thinking in retrospect that in this ‘working with father’, Cézanne, and Pissarro himself, came to recognise certain features – certain ways of doing things, ways of understanding the world – that in due course determined the character of ‘modern’ art. No wonder discussion had to be part of the process.

Theory is the first thing. But the second – the second phrase from Lucien’s memoir – goes in a different direction. ‘Cézanne was sitting on the grass watching him.’ It points to the fundamental wordlessness of painting, and how much, in the ‘working with father’, had to be a matter of just looking, noticing how things were done, mulling over the meaning of procedure. The peasant was exactly wrong, we suspect, that this activity did not involve putting in much effort. Seeing Pissarro – seeing what Pissarro was doing – was a fiercely difficult business.

For a while in the 1870s – once, twice, maybe three times, each over a period of weeks and months – and then again briefly in the early 1880s, Cézanne and Pissarro painted together. At the time of the first visit, in early summer 1873, Cézanne was 34 and Pissarro 42. The age difference disguises a complex story. Cézanne was graceless, immature, belligerent, foolhardy in his early thirties, but when he went to work with Pissarro he had already built, in the previous five years, a tremendous way of painting: it seems best to call it his ‘first style’ rather than his early one, because the amalgam of Courbet’s thick handling, Manet’s aggression and Delacroix’s cold lasciviousness clearly issued from half a lifetime of brooding on what French painting had been and might become. Certainly Pissarro thought so. He seems to have admired Cézanne deeply, even if with a shake of the head at the young man’s chutzpah.

Nonetheless, Cézanne came to Pissarro to unlearn his first style, and, seemingly, to change his mind about Courbet, Manet and Delacroix; or at least about what might be made from them, from their attitudes (their subjects, their stances) and their materials. Provocation in art would give way to patience, to exposure to optical events. The word ‘humble’ which Cézanne chose years later to characterise Pissarro – ‘humble and colossal’, he called him, and perhaps even ‘justified in his anarchist theories’ – sums up a number of things. The way forward for French painting, Cézanne seems to have decided in 1873, was to be found in the style that Monet had built, and to which Pissarro had given his distinctive stamp, in the very years when Cézanne had built his massive contrary to Monet’s lightness and impersonality. (‘Monet, around 1869, he struck the great blow’ was Cézanne’s verdict in retrospect. ‘Monet and Pissarro, the two great masters, the only two.’) The Courbet, Manet and Delacroix in oneself, in other words – and no doubt the three remained heroes – would have to be painted out. Sometime in the winter of 1872-73 (I shall return to this later) Cézanne borrowed a landscape Pissarro had done two years before, in the first heyday of Impressionism, and sat down to copy it stroke by stroke.

The coming together of Cézanne and Pissarro – their common cause, their peaceful co-existence, their rivalry, their contrariety – is a mystery. For me it is the deepest mystery of the 19th century; and I cannot escape the feeling that if we could unravel it we would have in our hands the key to French painting, in much the same way as the relation of Plato to Socrates, for example, still seems the key to ‘philosophy’. The comparison could be pursued further. Greek philosophy and French painting (meaning the line from Corot to Matisse, from Sardanapalus to Ma Jolie) may be seen as events of equal weight. Both, taken as a whole – the simple fact of them, their coming into being, their import, their purpose – are mysteries. Both speak to a fundamental change in the conditions of representation in the cultures that gave rise to them – some need for a different voicing or picturing of experience, at a turning point in history.

It may not be accidental that at such a turning point the discovery of an adequate new form for such recasting depends, for a moment, on the to-and-fro of contrary personalities: a suspension of personality for a time, an impersonation, the creation of a double, all the better to magic into being a dreadful indispensable singularity. The singularities in these two cases being ‘Plato’, whoever he may be in the dialogues, or ‘Cézanne’, as he finally emerges from his trying or pretending to be Pissarro. What both Plato and Cézanne were in search of, to put it a little differently, was an authority, a voice, a viewpoint beyond the personal – a high and irrefutable impersonality. No doubt in the end they found it. But finding it involved, first of all, not being impersonal, not being the Forms themselves speaking, but being someone else – experiencing a voice or a view that was not one’s own.

I need to put the case as strongly as I just have, but I know that doing so threatens to steer us back to a story – the story of the origins of modern art – from which I would like to escape. It may sound as if I think the main difficulty in the modern art case turns on the identity called ‘Cézanne’ and the way learning from Pissarro became part of a stronger and stranger account of visual experience – the account that made ‘strangeness’ (uniqueness) the marker of modernity. It is tempting, for instance, to put side by side an unruffled late-afternoon Pissarro like Maison bourgeoise à l’Hermitage, dated 1873, and a bristling Cézanne from a year or so later, Maison et arbre, quartier de l’Hermitage, and declare the balance of risk and ambition in the two self-evident.

Pissarro’s ‘Maison bourgeoise à l’Hermitage’ (1873)

Pissarro’s ‘Maison bourgeoise à l’Hermitage’ (1873)

Comparisons of this sort have been the staple of art writing for a century. And of course the writers had a point. The style Cézanne can be seen building from 1873, out of the Pissarro materials, is in the end more turbulent and perplexing than the style he had set himself to master. And yes, in the end it may be more difficult to understand, more wonderful and baffling. But there is difficulty and difficulty – the difficulty of the ‘difficult’ and the difficulty of the ‘humble and colossal’.

Cézanne’s ‘Maison et arbre, quartier de l’Hermitage’ (1874).

Cézanne’s ‘Maison et arbre, quartier de l’Hermitage’ (1874).

The challenge Pissarro presents to interpretation, to state the case another way, has to do with the depth of his purposes in painting – and how and why they resulted in such simplicity. But that in turn depends on our seeing why and how Cézanne understood the depth and simplicity. Cézanne is Pissarro’s best viewer. The paintings he made from Pissarro’s – and ‘from’ in this case, granting the point, must mean ‘for and against’ – are our best guide to the painter he was trying to learn from. Maison et arbre is the deepest meditation we have on Maison bourgeoise.

Most of this essay, therefore, is a description of two Pissarro canvases from the early 1870s. I use roughly my own voice in appraising them, but I hope Cézanne’s can be heard in the background. My purpose is to plead for Pissarro’s paintings’ depth.

Paysage à Pontoise is dated 1872. ‘I shall try a field of ripe wheat this summer,’ Pissarro wrote in a letter the following year. ‘The colourists get it entirely wrong: nature is coloured in winter and cold in summer, there’s nothing colder than full summer sun.’ The remark is helpful, though clearly in Paysage à Pontoise the fields in mid-distance are not sweating in full summer glory and the sun has gone behind clouds, beautifully rendered. An outright coldness of colour has given way, as it regularly does in Pissarro’s painting from this time, to something hovering between temperatures – and, even more, between intensities, between brightness and dullness. Any reproduction is bound to get this slightly wrong, since the dullness of the scene, and the intensity of that dullness, inheres in oil paint’s opacity, its smeared matt surface, which a reproduction is bound to tune up a little and render more ‘lit from within’. There is no inner light in Pissarro, no trace of the numinous.

Pissarro’s ‘Paysage à Pontoise’ (1872)

Pissarro’s ‘Paysage à Pontoise’ (1872)

I have found that each time I see Paysage à Pontoise again at the Ashmolean – it belonged early on to Degas and came to Oxford from a private collection in 1940 – there is at first a moment of disappointment. Is the world as we see it really as unlit as this one, as subdued, even on a good day? I said ‘at first’, but in a Pissarro of this kind the disappointment persists as we go on looking: it is part of the painting’s disenchantment of its genre. Landscape, and the kinds of attention and distraction it fosters – the unfolding of a natural scene in front of us, the suspension of workaday time as we let it come forward, the fact and feel of its surrounding us, containing us – no doubt became, in the 19th century, painting’s prime resource. They were what art had left. But they had to disappoint. Resistance to human wishes and appetites – to our ‘views’ – is written deep into the landscape genre, if we take its ambitions at all seriously. Wordsworth’s ‘little we see in nature that is ours’ is not a tragic condition, Pissarro says, so much as a matter of fact, a maturity. There is a difference between ‘scene’ and ‘scenery’, and Pissarro is always out to strip what he sees of the final ‘-ry’.

Nature doesn’t have high points, is one way of saying it. It is not picturesque. Or rather, looking now specifically at Paysage à Pontoise, the incidents and episodes it does possess – the hay cart, the horses, the brittle fence at the turn of the path, the poplars on the horizon – must cede to the overcast, the overall, the non-ominous totality.

So the true intensity of the new painting, Pissarro proposes, will inhere in its showing us what, after all, of beauty – of emphasis, of the suddenness of things seen – is there in the dullness, not ‘punctuating’ it, not coming out of it. This is Pissarro’s painting’s triumph: the complete steadiness of its hold on a single plain state of the light; the subduing of every separate entity to that state; and the peculiar beauty of that submission. Granted, certain episodes in the scene are on the edge of becoming ‘things in themselves’. The pale grey of the tree trunk at left is one such, done in a single smear. Or the path with its rustle of uncut dry grass, and then the path losing its way by the fence and going on into distance, across the rough fields, as a tentative green smudge. The pale blotted saplings on the other side of the fence; the flattened horizon way off to the right; the small square darker cloud. These are astonishments – the mind and eye can feast on them. But they do not disturb the sense of the whole. They are fine tunings of a single song.

This is not only true of the kind of small-scale incidents I’ve just pointed to. It seems to apply to the whole shape of the clump of trees at left, and their relation to – their standing apart from – the painting’s three great horizontal bands: the grey of the sky, the yellow and brown of the fields, the scuffed green and brown of the foreground. The clump of trees, to adopt the jargon of landscape painting, is a contrejour. It functions as a kind of anchor: a darkness against which a more distant light is silhouetted, in a to-and-fro that intensifies both parties, separating near from far. This silhouetting happens in the Pissarro, certainly, but in a way that somehow completely ‘fits’ within the picture’s monotone. The smear of grey on the tree trunk, which looks to have come late, is the sign of that final pressing in place. But the fit derives, more deeply, from the character of the trees’ drawing, and the calling out of their colours to the painting’s other greens: the hay cart and its half-dried load, the poplars in the distance, the unmowed wedge of field floating forward to the lower right corner.

Pissarro’s paintings are unemphatic. It is hard to imagine their maker laying down the law. Nonetheless, his art is surely decided – implacable – about what painting should and should not be. So the following aphorisms may be in order. (I think of Lucien listening to his elders ‘discussing theories endlessly’.) Space is not distance, Pissarro says, not a journey to a horizon: it is here where we are, an immense proximity, a total intuition of ‘place’ and ‘extent’. And Time is not becoming, not endless contingency: it is a Now that goes on being Now as we live it, a unique kind of permanence, one we know we have only for an instant but which is not for that reason experienced as fleeting, or even transitory. Every instant deserves to be monumentalised. It is not a ‘moment’ fizzing by.

I’ll come back to ‘momentariness’ later. Let me concentrate first on space and colour. Colour may be the key to the mystery: Pissarro and Cézanne certainly agreed on this. We can say as a first approximation that what makes colour so endlessly absorbing for them both is its being somehow neither here nor there in experience; but this does not mean – look back at Paysage à Pontoise – that the colours of things are unattached or insubstantial. Being ‘neither here nor there’ is not the same as floating in a void, or even in an atmosphere. Colour is not a false friend, Pissarro says. The yellows of the rutted fields are as solid as a rock.

These are, as I’ve said, the aphorisms of an un-aphoristic art. They are never in Pissarro produced as surprises; they are always qualified, put forward tentatively, happened on one quiet afternoon. The pace of the painting is that of the creaking cart. So the first assertion about space, to return to it – space not being a ‘prospect’, but an immense proximity – has immediately to be robbed of its un-matter-of-factness. Should we not better say – I know, disappointingly – that space as we experience it is not primarily a reaching into distance, though near and far are aspects, unfoldings, of it? The qualifications, when they are put into words, may seem just to retreat from insight into banality. But here is the crux: in painting, as Pissarro does it, qualification – the holding in balance of strong contrariety and careful admission of the obvious – is strength. In Paysage à Pontoise, for example, the balancing between space felt as a kind of charged proximity, pressing gently against the picture plane, and space as a path into distance, a petering out, a soft blur of shapes on a grey horizon (the poplars congealing the weight of the clouds) – this putting together of such opposite intuitions ends up as definitive as a ‘view’ can be. I like to think of Degas looking each morning at his Pissarro and smiling at its pretence of understatement. How could the painter have resisted making his path perform more, go off somewhere unexpected, more at an angle, inviting us to lose our way?

Paths​ are the lifeblood of Pissarro’s art. And they take us back to the very nature of landscape as a form. Where does the world begin for us as we look at it? What is our proper way into it? Every square inch of the foreground and mid-ground in Paysage à Pontoise is ‘cultivated’, no doubt. But the word expresses the strangeness of the case. Everything is manmade, but out of a materiality that is not ours, not us, not anyone’s property. The reality of the fields in the mid-distance – their leftover emptiness, the ruts and interruptions, maybe the stirring of a wind – is as impervious to our wishes, our understanding, as the wildest bleakest sea. The little dark square cloud may function as a kind of thumbprint, but it seals the skyscape only ironically.

Yes, Pissarro says, we have put our crude and subtle imprint onto nature. We have made it a home, a surrounding. But there is a side of it that has no place or time for us, and goes entirely its own way. Hence the painting’s impenetrability. It is the business of trying to express the world’s ordinariness and unfamiliarity – its being there close but entirely not ‘belonging’ – that drives Pissarro on. ‘Cézanne was sitting on the grass watching him.’

Pissarro’s ‘Le Champ de choux, Pontoise’ (1873)

Pissarro’s ‘Le Champ de choux, Pontoise’ (1873)

Compare the Ashmolean landscape to Le Champ de choux, Pontoise, now in the Thyssen Collection in Madrid. I shall focus on one main aspect of Le Champ de choux, which in treating Paysage à Pontoise I have only barely mentioned: namely, the character of time in a Pissarro of this type – the kind of duration and instantaneity Pissarro’s painting wants to stop in its tracks. In practice this question can’t be separated from another: the pace of actual painting in Impressionism, and the effect on our perception and understanding of the famously ‘free’ fast handling that Pissarro learned from Monet. Both things were recognised from the start as distinctive features of the new art, and no doubt they were partly what Cézanne came to Pontoise to learn. But what the focus on the moment and the new kind of touch truly were, as modes of understanding (the touch as a whole way of seeing, that is), seems to me still mostly a mystery. ‘Je vois, par taches,’ Cézanne was quoted as saying later. It is one of the hardest of his maxims.

Can we agree that the light in Le Champ de choux, which is breathtaking, is some kind of high-summer gloaming, maybe with moisture in the early evening air? (Of course the painting is equivocal about clock time. It isn’t a Monet coucher de soleil. But early evening seems reasonable.) Light is coming down from a whitened sky, pink just beginning to appear in it – coming from behind the hill (whose crest has a few houses just visible among trees), so that the hill is silhouetted, but with light humming in the foreground, flooding everywhere, muting the high silhouettes, picking out feathery edges of foliage on the lower trees and the plump leaves in the cabbage patch. There are three peasants in the fields: a woman with a basket, a man in blue and a further faint figure far back to the right in a shadowed clearing. The emptiness of the air above the field closer to us – the coloured emptiness – is a tour de force of illusion. The man in blue alerts us to the presence of a haze, almost a ground mist, of very light blue-purple all round him, seeping towards the woman with the basket. And there is a ghostly blue halo behind the tree above him. The ruckus of cabbage leaves nearby is rhymed with the russet of new-turned earth. There are many such wonders.

Things emerge from the evening light only gradually: it is the light that is striking, not the ghosts of trees. The edge of visibility is a world of its own. Push towards the unnoticeable in vision, therefore, and if necessary the unpaintable: that seems to be Pissarro’s self-instruction. Look at the dark leafless tree in the picture’s left foreground, drawn dark on dark against the hill and the house. How did Pissarro do it? How did he see it as paintable in the first place? Or look at the light caught in the trees on top of the hill, and the final flourish of touches that establish the sparser tree standing on its own between the houses, its dark greens scrawled liquid on pink.

These are extraordinary feats of drawing; and they are all the more affecting in the painting because they are juxtaposed to areas of colour in which drawing, or even ‘handling’, seems to cede to a kind of disembodied appearance of light – light, in the almost dusk, everywhere and nowhere. Look closer, for instance, at the pile-up of trees towards the top right. The paint is applied almost like photographic emulsion. Handling in this case – and of course one never quite loses the sense of the surface as handmade – is essentially a feat of equalisation, of preventing identities from coming too far out of the half-light. The analogy that comes to mind is with a kind of late 19th-century orchestral music, probably French, where detail is absorbed into an even, almost attenuated, texture of sound.

It is very early evening, and there’s still work to be done. We could say – I think it runs the risk of tying Pissarro’s account of time too closely to a single set of class experiences, but he himself would probably have assented to it – that the character of time felt for in Le Champ de choux is that of ‘agriculture’ or ‘peasant economy’. Time passes in that economy, for sure; light thickens, bodies begin to ache from work, one day is replaced by another; but the passing away of any one moment is not what gives time its identity, its resonance. (‘Away’ in this context is a strange adverb.) Time is not endless becoming. And painting, notoriously, cannot show us time. Nothing happens in Le Champ de choux, nothing changes. But for Pissarro that is the point. The moment in peasant society – that is to say, the kind of time lived by the great majority in Pissarro’s world – is this unique, unnoticeable, difficult, unrepeatable persistence.

I do not think this experience of time is insignificant, or lacking in grandeur – the picture is proof of that. But it is not portentous, not ‘primordial’. It does not have History written into it. The words that the language naturally provides for it tend to be heavy and ordinary: endurance, perseverance, long standing, never-endingness. Words on stones in country churchyards. The equivalent of such diction in Pissarro seems to me the refusal of emphasis that is his characteristic note: the evenness and solidity of his colour in Le Champ de choux, for instance, the filling of every inch of the canvas with light of the same character, the same saturation, the same coolness and steadiness. Plein air in Pissarro is always a strange reality. ‘Open air’ seems a poor way of putting it. ‘Full sun’ similarly. The word Monet often turned to in his letters – ‘l’enveloppe’, the containing encroaching presence of an atmosphere all round us as we look – gets close.

Long ago the critic Clement Greenberg had things to say about the dangers run by an art of Pissarro’s kind – ‘its tendency towards monotony, its frequent lack of incisiveness and motion’. No one had a surer sense than Pissarro of the picture as all one thing, Greenberg conceded, and a deeper and more justified contempt for oil paint trickery. ‘But the total final effect of the flat rectangle was often a paralysing obsession for him. He allowed his perception of the free atmospheric diffusion of light to hush and merge all salient features … and would mistake uniformity for unity.’ The criticism came from someone who admired Pissarro enormously, and it points to something important. There is a price to be paid for lack of emphasis in art, for constant hushing and merging; and the gloaming of Le Champ de choux, we sense, is on the edge of tipping into indistinctness, indecisiveness. Many other paintings by Pissarro do tip. Art is obliged to run the risk of disappointing, for reasons already stated; but the risk is real. Nonetheless, I imagine Cézanne standing in front of Le Champ de choux, and I have no doubt he thought the risk worth running. This is what it took to put painting in touch.

‘Putting painting in touch’. This leads to the difficult – metaphysical – phrase that one witness has Cézanne producing later in life: ‘Je vois, par taches.’ ‘I see in touches – patches – dabs – stains.’ Or I see by touches. I see by means of coloured marks; I see by making them. The phrase is a clue to the wider enigma of ‘handling’ in Impressionism, and what the new speed and immediacy of the hand were supposed to make visible.

‘Immediacy’ is a treacherous word. It seems to have been the case that for much of the time painters in Pissarro’s cohort did jab and jab at the canvas on the easel at speed, as if the look of a thing had to pass from eye to hand as fast as possible, before ‘knowledge’ interfered. We have early newsreels of Renoir at work, for example, and whatever the untrustworthiness of frame speed in primitive cinema, there is no mistaking the nervousness, the staccato, the worrying of an optical retriever. And yet the par in ‘Je vois, par taches’ speaks to the depth of the problem. Paint is a means. Painting is putting something wholly unlike ‘seeing’ in seeing’s place, to ‘stand for it’, maybe, but not to stand still for it; to have its unstillness lead back to the paradox of the eye – to the fact that the eye’s restlessness and voracity are what give the onlooker access to the totality, the whole look of the evening, the hushing and merging that make everything clear, everything present.

‘Immediacy’ must therefore be itself a creation. I see nothing in the record that suggests the Impressionists were unaware of this. Pissarro, being the kind of quiet dogmatist he was, liked on occasion to give his viewers a specific stage direction. Down at bottom left in Le Champ de choux, written across an area of green that is darker than the main plot of cabbages (have some of them been cut, perhaps, and put in a pile to go home?), is his signature, ‘C. Pissarro’, done in a pale grey-blue. Over to the right, on top of the cabbages still in the ground, is a second bolder signing, ‘1873. Pissarro’, written in a kind of peach pink. (There is showmanship in Pissarro. I think in this case he is taking up a colour from the atmosphere behind the fruit trees.) The two signatures – there are other paintings from the 1870s with the same signing twice – speak to duration, to ‘more than once’. They put the moment in parenthesis.

Immediacy in a picture, then, is different from instantaneity. It has to do with the wholeness, the felt totality, of the moment on display. The ambiguity of the phrase ‘all at once’ in English is useful: it does not point necessarily to things taking place in a flash. It can be about simultaneity as much as suddenness. What marks off French landscape painting of the last thirty years of the 19th century from previous tradition is above all its conviction that the world in a picture – that is, the fact discovered about the world which could make a picture worth looking at – comes to us simultaneously or not at all. This was Impressionism’s metaphysics. The world, Pissarro says, no longer offers itself in the form of a prospect or a view. Our entry into the picture’s fiction is not by means of a ‘way’ to be walked down step by step. Ruysdael and Claude are behind us. The world has to happen to a picture – the world’s totality of light, in particular. Ask this question of a painting, then: are you convinced, in front of it, that the pattern of touches that fills the rectangle has been made by – or at least, to be more guarded about it, in some sense made for – a particular occurrence of sun and air? Ask this and you have the essential means to judge, as the painter did, whether the painting succeeds.

‘Je vois, par taches.’ I have still not quite faced the most obvious, and yet in the end most difficult, characteristic of Impressionism: namely, its pace and freedom of handling. Clearly pace and freedom in a painting like Le Champ de choux don’t have to do with approximation or not being sure of what you see. Le Champ de choux is not preliminary to anything. It is not a sketch. But specific identities and occurrences in it do come out of a looser and more ad hoc flow of touches than most previous painters would have allowed themselves. Each dab of pigment strikes hard for an equivalent of a perception, without apology or prevarication; but at the same time it declares itself, in its very form, its speed and abbreviation, ready to be interrupted or overtaken by another.

The question, again, is what this loosening and restlessness do to our understanding of the scene. I do not think, pace Meyer Schapiro, that in the end the new handling is essentially a means of insisting on the ‘individuality’ of any one painter’s apprehension. Personal freedom is a given for Pissarro; but his anarchism does not seem to have been built around the idea of an irreducible ego. It was founded more on a confidence in commonality, in the world as a thing to be shared. The individual and the commonplace in experience go together: that is Le Champ de choux’s message. Here is the world as we know it, ordinary through and through; and the world as it never has been before, and never will be again.

I take it that Cézanne was right in believing that freedom and openness of handling in Pissarro was bound up with a theory of politics. ‘Inquiry modifies our way of seeing to such an extent that the humble and colossal Pissarro finds himself justified in his anarchist theories.’ (‘L’étude modifie notre vision à un tel point que l’humble et colossal Pissarro se trouve justifié de ses théories anarchistes.’) Sustained attention to anything, that is to say – let alone the kind of relentless concentration and elaboration of vision that comes from painting seriously – transforms the parameters of seeing. The human sensorium is plastic: it is changed by use – changed for the better. And what is true of the senses may be true of the instincts, and of our established patterns of knowing and being. We can but hope. Loosen the hold of likeness in painting, in the meantime, and wait for the moment at which the ‘known’ disappears. Let the tree in the half-dark replace it.

I said that these painters believed the world had somehow to happen to a picture – impinge on it, touch it. This ultimately is the point of the ‘tache’. It puts us back in the moment when the world occurs to the sensorium; and at that point it isn’t clear to the painting subject whether the occurrence is something made by the mind – by the mind’s eye – or entirely a material event, an actual unstoppable touch of light on the receptor evolved to receive it. Is the ‘tache’ transitive or intransitive, in other words? It is certainly a made thing, but made by what … by whom?

This brings us back to Schapiro and the question of individualism. Both Cézanne and Pissarro put their trust in the idea that their painting was founded on truth to their own irreducible ‘petite sensation’. But what the ‘petite sensation’ was remained for them a mystery. This was the great thing that painting was meant to find out. Yes, it was ‘mine’; but as I made the actual marks that were my seeing (‘Je vois, par taches’), I came to understand that in some sense it did not belong to me at all – or at least to the ‘me’ of the mind, of subjectivity. It, the ‘sensation’, was the contact – the deep structure of the contact – between sensorium and surrounding. Unique to each individual, doubtless, but full of a materiality, an exposure to the exterior, that put individuality at risk.

Answering the question ‘What was Cézanne looking at when he sat watching Pissarro paint?’ is difficult enough. But the question opens onto another. What did Cézanne make of what he saw? If what he made was Maison et arbre, quartier de l’Hermitage – a painting as strange and rebarbative as this one, and several others like it from the time – then had he simply missed Pissarro’s point?

Pissarro’s ‘Louveciennes’ (1871)

Pissarro’s ‘Louveciennes’ (1871)

I’ll tackle the problem two ways. First, by attending to the moment of actual imitation: that is, the moment in 1872 or 1873 when Cézanne took Louveciennes, a painting Pissarro had done in 1871, and copied it point by point. And second, by setting out in bare outlines – schematically, more or less as a set of maxims – what Cézanne could and could not do with Pissarro’s way of painting, and what else he put in its place. Inevitably some elements of the ‘could and could not do’ will emerge as I look at the process of copying; but I don’t think it misrepresents the situation between the two artists to have the differences finally stated baldly, polemically. Cézanne was the strangest apprentice ever known. Lucien’s memory is right. ‘They discussed theories endlessly, and one day bought palette knives to paint with.’ Painting together was self-denial, but also self-assertion. It was an argument. I wouldn’t have wanted to be too close when the palette knives were on the go.

Cézanne’s ‘Louveciennes’ (c.1873)

Cézanne’s ‘Louveciennes’ (c.1873)

Cézanne’s choice of the Pissarro he’d copy speaks immediately to the height of his ambition. The 1871 Louveciennes is slightly different from Paysage à Pontoise or Le Champ de choux, or any other painting from the years 1872-75. It is larger. At three feet high by just under four feet wide, it is even a little larger than most of the palette knife pictures Pissarro had done a few years earlier in 1867-68 – almost exactly the same size as the wonderful Côte du Jallais, Pontoise shown in the Salon of 1868, which seems to have still been in Pissarro’s possession in 1871 – and larger than anything done since, or at least that survived the years of war. (The exception is a picture dated 1870, Landscape at Louveciennes, Autumn, now hung in the Getty, again of much the same dimensions. It is splendid in its awkwardness, but still far from sure of the way Monet’s way of handling might be adjusted to a scale of this sort.)

Maybe it is also worth pointing out that Louveciennes stood alone in Pissarro’s work for many years to come. It was not until 1875 and 1876, hundreds of paintings later, that Pissarro tried such a scale again; and I would say that it was not till 1877, in the Côte des Boeufs now in the National Gallery in London, that Pissarro truly felt able to produce a monumental version of his Impressionist landscape manner – that is, to have largeness emerge from it as a genuine aesthetic possibility. The dimensions he chose for Côte des Boeufs are very close to Louveciennes, turned ninety degrees. And this is another Pissarro painting that Cézanne seems to have studied. He did his own version of the view up the slope.

Could we say that Cézanne feels drawn above all to the potential or actual monumentality in Pissarro’s anti-monumental style? This may be a clue to his future career. It seems he can see what is being done most clearly, or see a way to work with what he sees, when Pissarro is painting big. Though again, Cézanne’s version of Côte des Boeufs miniaturises the monumentality he’s looking at – just as his copy of Louveciennes had done. Both his renderings of Pissarro’s big statements are decisively smaller than the paintings they hark back to. The four-footer of 1871 shrinks to three, and the four-footer of 1877 is done again more or less half-size. This too points forward to the mixture of massiveness and compression that makes a mature Cézanne unmistakable. (I said that Cézanne ‘felt drawn’ to the big Pissarro of 1877, but I’d be hard put to say when, exactly. We know that at least a year elapsed between original and reproduction in the Louveciennes case – most likely two. My hunch is that with Côte des Boeufs it was several more years than that.)

The moment of copying, then, is part of a complex – maybe impenetrable – story. But at least with the two Louveciennes our questions can be specific. What was it, we want to know, on the evidence of his transcription, that Cézanne saw in Pissarro? What could he duplicate, and what couldn’t or wouldn’t he? Louveciennes, as I’ve said, stands a little apart from the line of painting begun a year or so later: it is a little heavier, thicker, with an atmosphere fascinatingly close to Le Champ de choux – the same late afternoon filling of the air, I think – but in the end more solid, more fixed in place by light. Nonetheless, the 1871 painting already turns, typically for Pissarro, on an unrepeatable charged emptiness. All of the painting’s specific colours – and they are individually often pungent – are put down as inflections of the overall colour that is the work’s real subject: the colour of the air at this hour in this light, the colour of our ‘surroundings’.

Is this how Cézanne understood Pissarro’s achievement? Perhaps – but he certainly could not repeat it. The changes from original to copy hardly need spelling out. Colour in the Cézanne is not primarily an aspect – a felt reality – of an atmosphere: it adheres somewhat perfunctorily to things. Look, for example, at the yellows and oranges on the old bulwark at the side of the road, or the yellows and browns making the screen of trees to the right of the two figures, over the low wall. Equally, space in Cézanne’s copy is not a filled emptiness. It is not something grounded and contained. It does not approach the viewer along the modest dirt road, across a solid proximity, offering us a way into the illusion. ‘Way’ is a notion foreign to Cézanne’s vision. Where in general we might be in space is an enigma in the copy: the houses in the distance in the original enter a kind of non-distance, or anti-distance, when Cézanne redoes them – not that that means they are nearer, more tangible. The highest house is an epitome of this. Cézanne takes Pissarro’s gentle indications of a road climbing the hill to the house and zigzagging left towards it, and turns the whole collocation into a crisp folding of edges and collision of overlapping planes. We are already in the world of Maison et arbre – no need to exaggerate the resemblance, but I think the way points forward. (Maison et arbre is difficult to date, but a reasonable guess is 1874.)

The difference between the two Louveciennes is summed up by what happens to the mother and child. Cézanne’s human beings do not really cast shadows: the mother’s shadow slides away from her, thick on the surface, and disappears into a rut. (In the Pissarro the rut carries a little rivulet of rainwater. Cézanne has no time for such traces of weather.) Space in Cézanne, we already begin to see, is not a reality inhabited by others besides ourselves, beings with an equal claim on the landscape. His two figures are groundless ghosts: they’re about to go around the corner into the abyss. Space in Pissarro is essentially containment, a form of surrounding: it can in the end be metaphorised, as here, by a holding of hands, the reaching up of a child to its mother. In Cézanne the gesture is the first thing to go. There need be no green gate at far left in the copy, leading out to other people’s property – marks of ownership are not part of seeing for Cézanne. No real light comes over the copy’s horizon – just a theatrical backlighting, which splashes crudely against the houses on the hill, breaking them into facets. There is no evening glow under the arches of the aqueduct. And of course no agriculture to speak of, no field system, no raked earth in peasant plots, no lines of new planting. Pissarro liked to call himself ‘a painter of cabbages’. Cézanne’s seeing does not divulge identities of this kind.

Two things​ to add. First, it is true that many copies are never intended to be faithful: they are meant from the start as free translations, submitting someone else’s vision to one’s own. But I don’t think this was the case with the Cézanne. It was a true act of submission. It wished to enter into Pissarro’s way of seeing and doing things. And, second, that is what makes the divergences so telling. They assert themselves against Cézanne’s will. They are the ‘deep structure’ of his vision taking hold of the picture as he works. The interest of the copy is not that Cézanne couldn’t do these many things that Pissarro could, but that the failures turn out to have their own coherence, their own aesthetic dignity: they shadow forth the Cézanne we know.

I have inevitably dramatised the differences between the two paintings by putting them into words, and maybe I have made the Cézanne more a premonition of things to come than it is. And therefore, I realise, the various absences and negations I see taking over the Cézanne as it tries to reproduce Pissarro begin to turn – I feel it as I set them out – into positives, or at least into a set of negatives that enact a sense of things we might come to regard as closer, in their negativity, to the feel of the world we have, we ‘moderns’. The reader will have registered the familiars: groundlessness, airlessness, absence of contact, lack of distance but also of proximity, lack of the sense of a palpable shared world – a world of work or a world of pleasure – uncertainty, a strange false vividness. Though perhaps the ‘false’ is wrong. Look again at Maison et arbre, and talk instead of a vividness that is irresistible but puts one nowhere. This is the Cézanne who defined a century.

There is, as I said, a story to be told about how long it took, in the to-and-fro with Pissarro through the 1870s, for this other apprehension to become a vision, a practice. The story is complex, and too many of its elements strike me as still undecided – maybe undecidable – for it to be told properly here. So I leap to more general conclusions. The reader between the lines of this essay will have gathered that, however much I think we underestimate Pissarro, I largely accept the banal comparative judgment as to Cézanne’s and Pissarro’s strengths. I agree with Pissarro, in other words. Cézanne was the greater artist – more tragic and outlandish, more relentless and single-minded – and therefore modernity’s patron saint. Some critics were saying this about him as early as 1877, and by 1895 it was common wisdom with the few, confirmed by the laughter and contempt of the many. The verdict is banal, as I say, and irrefutable.

But the hard question is this. What exactly follows from the comparative value judgment when we come to the dynamics of Cézanne’s and Pissarro’s dealings with one another? Does it follow, to return to my opening paragraphs, that when Cézanne apprenticed himself to Pissarro he apprenticed himself to something lesser than himself – to an artistic project that was essentially (too) simple, too sunny and unproblematic for what turned out to be his deeper sense of life and art, surface and depth? This seems to be the assumption that shapes most thinking on the subject.

Let us assume, on the contrary, that Cézanne went to work with Pissarro because he believed that in doing so he stood the chance of emulating something profound, something truly difficult – possessed of a kind of transparency comparable to Verlaine’s, say, or a late song by Schubert, or even Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Let us assume, further, that the something in question proved too difficult, in practice, for Cézanne to manage; although out of the ‘too difficult’ came in the end a set of artistic strategies, and means of apprehension, that were to carry painting to a level of dialectical energy – of anguish and fixity – that Pissarro would never attain. The evidence for the main proposal here – that Cézanne considered that in trying to imitate Pissarro he was trying to imitate something deep and enviable – is the whole corpus of Cézanne’s and Pissarro’s work, the whole baffling interplay.

I began this essay by pairing Cézanne’s Maison et arbre, quartier de l’Hermitage with Pissarro’s Maison bourgeoise à l’Hermitage. And the sheer strangeness of Maison et arbre does speak to something fundamental: we look at the picture’s precipitous road and front lawn to the left, or the desperate staccato of its branches against the house front, window, hilltop, red chimney, and know we are in the presence already – impossibly – of a painting to come. Picasso is looking over our shoulder. But Maison et arbre is an extreme point in Cézanne’s progress (maybe Cézanne himself recoiled from it). Its weird electricity is part of the 1870s pattern – even the picture’s ‘non-landscape’ format speaks to the contrast between Cézanne’s apprehension and Pissarro’s – but far from typical. There was alongside it all through the apprentice years a humility, a hesitancy, a kind of inimitable not-knowing, which also led to the Cézanne Picasso took as his totem.

Cézanne’s ‘Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan’ (c.1876)

Cézanne’s ‘Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan’ (c.1876)

I turn to a quieter painting, therefore, though one perhaps just as uncanny; and finish by laying out – too briefly – the elements of the vision Cézanne happened upon in Pissarro’s company. The painting in question is Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan. Again we struggle to fit it into a comprehensible sequence. John House thought it was done in 1876; others have put it a year or two later. (You will notice that both Jas de Bouffan and Maison et arbre are signed. This, for Cézanne, is rare: it means he considered the paintings finished enough for public exhibition.)

Surely the painter of Jas de Bouffan is trying to establish, over the pool in the foreground and in front of the wafer-thin tree, a specific kind of light – light in air. In this he remains Pissarro’s disciple. So we understand Roger Fry exclaiming, when first he saw the painting in 1906, that

the sky and the reflections in the pool are rendered as never before in landscape art, with an absolute illusion of the planes of illumination. The sky recedes miraculously behind the hillside, answered by the inverted concavity of lighted air in the pool. And this is effected without any chiaroscuro – merely by a perfect instinct for the expressive quality of tone values.

Fry is not wrong (his hero worship is touching) but somehow, if we look at the painting again, he seems to be ignoring the obvious. ‘Absolute illusion’? Sky ‘receding miraculously’? Lighted air in the pool ‘answering’ the sky above? Well, yes, possibly; but possibly not. Isn’t what strikes home about the picture, straightaway but indelibly, precisely the fact that it seems to offer ‘absolute illusion’ one moment, and then, a moment later, illusion flattening and doubling back on itself? Miraculous recession, for sure, but just as miraculous – naive and miraculous – clumsy adherence to two dimensions. Reality and reflection answering one another in many respects, each confirming the other’s geometry; but then the world in the pool floating free of the things above it, walls and windows taking on a second life, the sky spilling out from ‘inverted concavity’ and flapping in front of us like half-finished canvas. Just look at what happens to the farmhouse roof!

As so often with Cézanne the balance of oddity and accuracy in Jas de Bouffan is hard to hold on to in words. Fry’s verdict on the picture never goes away. Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here – sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ de choux’s thickening and diffusion. ‘Atmosphere’ remains one of Cézanne’s great subjects. But the tree in Jas de Bouffan – the tree as it intersects with the water – shows his attention going in a different direction. ‘Space’ peels away from the totality of time, light and atmospherics, and starts to become a thing in itself. The building blocks of the wall in the mid-ground – is it a wall or a strange hacked-out escarpment? – are this new space’s reality congealed. I say ‘the space’s reality’, but surely in Jas de Bouffan the whole felt world, the spatial surrounding, ends up as unreal – as uncanny – as it is real and matter-of-fact. Its solidity is ironised as soon as insisted on: the building-block wall, the reader will notice, vanishes in the pool’s mirror. Space is becoming something palpable, yes, a separate entity; but therefore, it seems, a riddle. Colour is not so much the carrier of infinite gradation as the form of space. And therefore sensation itself – the moment of apprehension – is no longer felt, in the picture, as an opening onto a presence, a set of things ineluctably ‘out there’. There may indeed be a world in Jas de Bouffan … but where has it come from? Where is our apprehension of it located? Even – though this question takes us beyond the terms Cézanne himself would have understood, or maybe tolerated – whose apprehension is it?

Not for nothing did Cézanne’s later admirers talk about his art’s impersonality. It is clear what they meant. But ‘impersonality’, in the face of a painting like this one, seems ultimately the wrong term: it sounds too assured, too aristocratic. ‘Non-personality’ might capture things better. This seems to be Time – the moment – as a non-person might intercept it. And Space, in the pool – I look in particular at the pool’s right lip, and the wedge of reflection of a further tree going down to the corner – where a non-person could feel at home.

Pissarro’s ‘Inondation à Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône’ (1873)

Pissarro’s ‘Inondation à Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône’ (1873)

Modernity is loss of world. Cézanne is the painter who makes that cliché draw blood. And a very great deal of his painting’s intensity derived, I think, from the fact of his coming across this new sense of things in the company of Pissarro. Put Jas de Bouffan next to Inondation à Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône. The latter is dated 1873. (Saint-Ouen was a few miles downstream from Auvers, a village just beginning to be a suburb.) Look at the stretch of land in Saint-Ouen leading off between the trees to the village … and the awkward pomposity of the house and chimney in the centre … the factory smokestack just visible through branches to the left … the birds battling the wind, the clouds still threatening rain … the reflection in the water of the fruit tree’s supports. Humble and colossal. Every observation solid as a rock. A social world. The earth emerging after the flood. What must it have been like to have discovered, under such painting’s spell, that Pissarro’s feeling for time and place – his anarchist confidence in history beginning again – could not be one’s own?

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