Paul Cézanne painted Young Man and Skull in oil on canvas between 1896 and 1898. This painting is in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
What is depicted in the Young Man and Skull?
The painting represents a young man in a sitting position, his elbows on a table on which there are several books and a skull.
Young Man and Skull – 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. These were usually family members or friends.
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 builds the composition Young Man and Skull by contrasting two principles – life and death through the motif of a skull on one side and the figure of a young man on the other. The way the scene unfolds to the viewer gives the impression of being watched from above. The table placed in the central part of the composition can be seen in all its depth. Numerous books and pieces of paper are frequent motifs of vanitas paintings and additionally underline the melancholic component of the young man’s contemplative state. Lavish drapery that descends in the middle of the composition creates a kind of frame, descending around the young man’s head and making folds around the skull on the table.
Young Man and Skull is a rare composition in which Cézanne incorporated vanitas elements into a portrait. His famous still-life vanitas includes Still life with skull, candle and book, c.1866, housed in the Kunsthaus Zurich, Still Life with Skull, 1898, from The Barnes Foundation collection, as well as Pyramid of Skulls, c.1901, which is in Private Collection.