Examination: Cezanne's Basket of Apples
An examination of Cezanne's dynamic composition of fruit and objects in this still life from the mid-1890s.

Book: Post-Impressionism
Brettell, Richard. Post-Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 67.

Paul Cezanne spent most of his working life in and around the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence and, partially as a result of his self-imposed isolation, was for many years all but unknown in Paris. In 1895, he was persuaded by the dealer Ambroise Vollard to have a one-man show in Paris. The exhibition, held at Vollard’s popular gallery, was not an important financial success, but it had a profound effect on the history of French art. It was the first time in nearly twenty years that French artists who had heard about this painter from Provence could actually see his work.

Basket of Apples was among the paintings selected by Cezanne and Vollard for inclusion in this exhibition. Like several of the other paintings in the exhibition, it was signed, most probably at the insistence of Vollard, who felt that an unsigned painting might be considered unfinished and, hence, would fail to sell. Cezanne grudgingly complied, and, for that reason, the paintings in the Vollard exhibition are among the few the artist actually signed.

Basket of Apples is among Cezanne's "baroque" still lifes painted in the late 1880's and 1890's. Its pictorial structure derives from seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes. Like the Dutch artists, Cezanne sought to establish a dynamic, asymmetrical arrangement of objects that are held in place only by the painter’s compositional skills. Yet, where such an effect of imbalance was merely a compositional device of the Dutch painters, it was an essential element of Cezanne's conception of the still life. Cezanne recognized the fact that the artist is not bound to represent real objects in real space. He was able, therefore, to impart to everything a strength and relative position that could not possibly be duplicated in an actual studio arrangement.

Here, the basket filled with apples tilts improbably on a small base or stand, its contents held in check only by a bottle and a cloth, in whose complex, craggy folds lie many other pieces of fruit. The table, like virtually every one in a Cezanne still life, has four edges that cannot be aligned to form an exact rectangle. At the raised upper right corner of the table, the artist created a latticed "log-cabin" of the French pastry called dents de loup, contrasting the informal and unstable arrangement of the circular apples on the table with the architectonic stack of cookies. Both arrangements vie for dominance around the central form of the bottle, which, with its own silhouette shifting from left to right, acts as an anchor for a composition in endless flux. Thus, the balance that Cezanne achieved is a purely pictorial one: the actual arrangement of objects he painted in his studio could never have possessed the dynamism and tension with which it is endowed in Basket of Apples.