Paul Cézanne painted the Pyramid of Skulls in oil on canvas around 1901. This painting is in a Private Collection.
What is depicted in the Pyramid of Skulls?
The painting represents four skulls arranged in a pyramidal shape.
Pyramid of Skulls – Analysis
Still life was a very important part of Cézanne’s work. The inventive and revolutionary principles that Cézanne introduced to still life painting can be traced through his relationship to perspective, line, and color. In the domain of perspective, Cézanne made changes that would greatly influence the later development of modern painting. He refined the default concept of linear perspective by introducing the idea of simultaneous observation of objects from several points. Relying on the theory of inverse perspective, Cézanne strove to provide as much information as possible about the presented subject. In structuring the scene, Cézanne minimized the role of the line. Although drawing was very important in Cézanne’s detailed preparation for each composition, the scene ultimately rests on the complex relationship of colors. Thus, the line in the scene was replaced by a combination of colored fields arranged according to the idea of complementarity. The complementarity of colors is the key element of Cézanne’s complex palette. Cézanne achieved harmony in both still lifes and landscapes by modulating painted surfaces based on the combination of warm and cold tones.
Vanitas Still Life
Vanitas as a genre of still life developed especially from the second half of the 16th century and during the 17th century. The term itself comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. With the idea of indicating the transience of life and the inevitability of the outcome in death, vanitas still life developed a spectrum of motifs that are often repeated. The primary motifs in this type of painting are a skull, a burnt candle, or an hourglass. On the other hand, motifs of flowers, jewelry, and instruments appear as symbols of life, well-being, and wealth, as well as motifs of books and maps that represent the intellectual side of existence. Vanitas is part of the wider philosophical and artistic concept of Memento Mori (Lat “remember that you have to die”), which has been present since antiquity to a great degree during the development of Christian culture in continuity both in philosophy and literature as well as in fine arts, music, and theater.
Pyramid of Skulls belongs to the vanitas still lifes of Cézanne’s late period. Created around 1901, this painting brings a more pronounced contrast between light and dark. Also, this composition, like the watercolor Three Skulls, represents skulls exclusively, rejecting other elements that Cézanne had previously included in still lifes of this type.
A few years after he painted the Pyramid of Skulls, Cézanne repeated a similar form with skulls on oriental fabric in the watercolor Three Skulls. This watercolor is kept in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.