Paul Cézanne painted Still Life with Skull on canvas in 1898. This painting is in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
What is depicted in Still Life with Skull?
In the painting, a white cloth with fruit and a skull is presented on the table’s surface.
Still Life with Skull – 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.
Cézanne’s Still Life with Skull from 1898 is structured in a rather dynamic way. By placing a white cloth on one side of the table, Cézanne also coloristically establishes a duality that is first read on a symbolic level – the relationship between the living and the dead. A skull placed in the left segment of the painting on a white cloth is surrounded by pears and lemons on the right which are arranged on a bare table surface. By including elements of inverse perspective, Cézanne achieved the effect of tilting the entire scene towards the viewer. Another element of mobility in the static still life is the fruit on the plate placed between the cloth and the bare surface of the table, with an indication of the inevitable rolling away. It is interesting to observe this still life in comparison with Cézanne’s early works such as Still life with skull, candle, and book from 1866. This painting largely continues the compositional solutions used by the Symbolists, the extremely dark palette and the simplicity of motifs were replaced by Cézanne at a later stage. This is noticeable in the particularly vibrant colorism in Still Life with Skull in the processing of the white fabric, the space behind the table, as well as the striking orange marks on and around the skull.
An Artwork related to “Still Life with Skull” is “Still life with skull, candle, and book” in 1886. This is an example of Cézanne’s vanitas still life from his early phase. This painting is in the collection of Kunsthaus Zurich.