Paul Cézanne painted Seated Peasant in oil on canvas between 1892 and 1896. This painting is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
What is depicted in the Seated Peasant?
The painting depicts a man who was most likely one of the workers on Cézanne’s family estate in Aix-en-Provence.
Seated Peasant – Analysis
Cézanne was committed to the long process of working on the painting. That work was based on the principles of unifying what he sees and what he feels and thinks about the model he is painting and the environment that surrounds him. In portraits, he begins to apply the technique he developed in landscape painting. The technique of the so-called constructive brushstrokes. This technique involves arranging patches of paint of similar size in parallel or diagonal directions, treating the figure and face of the portrayed person and the objects in his environment in the same way. During his long career, Cézanne almost always portrayed people from his immediate environment. In the 1890s, Cezanne’s work received wide recognition, and the relevance of his expression became unquestionable. Cézanne painted Seated Peasant between 1892 and 1896. The represented man is probably one of the workers on his family estate Jas de Bouffan in Aix-en-Provence.
The modernity of Cézanne’s painting was reflected in his attitude towards sensations in nature, i.e. translating those sensations into elements for building an image. The structure of Cézanne’s painting is formed by complementary relationships of integrated color fields as well as on the principle of three dominant forms in nature. Cézanne believed that all scenes in nature can be represented using the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.
In a letter to Emile Bernard, dated 15 April 1904, Cézanne writes To treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, be it a section of nature or, if you prefer, the spectacle that Pater Omnipotens Oeterne Deus spreads before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere.
During the 1890s, Cézanne did a large number of studies of the male figure. These studies were created for the needs of the Cardplayers series. The men who posed for him were mostly workers on his Jas de Bouffan estate. Works from this phase of Cézanne’s remain a challenge for researchers precisely because it is impossible to precisely date them. It is also unclear whether or not the man from the Seated Peasant painting is featured in any of the Cardplayers paintings. Joseph Rishel writes about this painting in the book Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection: This is a remarkably hermetic picture, smaller than any other of his small studies of this decade and, perhaps because of this, more concentrated and refined in handling. A highly restricted palette of grays, blues, browns, gray greens, and pale yellows is only occasionally relieved with touches of red and purple. The build-up of a lean application is remarkably harmonious and studied. Wetter, attenuated strokes, such as the purple strip on the right knee or the two drips of terre-verte on the whitewashed wall at the lower right, seem almost gaily spontaneous in the otherwise stern development of the picture.
For so seemingly simple a composition, the spatial illusion is very complex. The room appears to be L-shaped, the wall, with its continuation of the chair rail, projecting into the space to the right of the figure and then turning parallel to the plane of the back wall, banded with a panel of whitewash that is not aligned with the chair rail. The perspective of the chair is directly frontal, receding symmetrically to one vanishing point for both sides of the caned seat and the one rail visible between the man’s legs. However, the small perspective wedge on the right is so surrounded by the ample thigh, the fall of the coattail (which almost but not quite comes into contact with the chair), and the triangle of wall seen beyond the chair that its spatial implications are quite different from those of the more simply constructed section to the left–although this area, too, is made more complicated by the inexplicable white form that appears under the sitter’s projecting hip, where the wooden rail must be attached to the caning.
Regardless of the small dimensions of the painting, Cézanne managed to create a monumental portrait composition. The all-pervading effect of the reduced palette realized its fullness of expression through the subtly geometrized structure of the scene. Cézanne in this portrait, as he often does, uses a vertical field on the wall behind the figure to separate the upper and lower segments – the sphere of the bust from the whole figure. A kind of portrait within a portrait – the bust of a young man, is surrounded by that horizontal field and the line of the wall on the other side. The geometrization of this structure rests on several triangular forms contained in the figure itself or generated in the correlation of figure and space. They form a pyramidal structure that gives the impression of monumentality to the centrally positioned figure. In the lower segment of the painting, Cézanne also incorporated elements of the still life that Joseph Rishel analyzed in the mentioned book: The spatial animation of the picture is heightened by the introduction on the lower left of an intricate still life. A group of geometrical objects–two green-bound books, two small boxes, a white square object with a round top, possibly a small bottle, and a stick–seem to be carefully placed on a heavy cloth, raised (by a crate?) above floor level. Cézanne often introduced still-life elements into his male figure studies–the book-strewn library in which he painted the critic Gustave Geffroy in 1895 being perhaps his most complex perspectival exercise–although never do they play such an independent role as here, as if their introduction were meant almost as some type of spatial subplot. This is truly a case of a figure taking on the aspect of one more still-life element in the composition, very much the “apple” that Cézanne requested Ambroise Vollard to become when he sat for his portrait in 1899. Not only is the painting daunting in a formal sense, but there also remains, as in many of Cézanne’s figure studies and portraits of the 1890s, a vaguely disturbing irresoluteness in its final psychological expression.
The painting A Seated Peasant, very similar in composition to the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was created around 1897. This painting is kept in the Hiroshima Museum of Art in Hiroshima.