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This is part of an essay done for an art appreciation course in May 2005. The part of the essay dealing with the composition of CÚzanne's Still Life with Apples and Oranges is reproduced below.

Paul CÚzanne, Still Life with Apples and Oranges

c. 1895—1900, Oil on canvas, 74 x 93 cm
MusÚe d'Orsay, Paris


by Mary Adam


CÚzanne is often called “the father of modern art” and he has been credited as the inspiration for Cubism. What elements of his work influenced later painters, and can a link to Cubism, such as evidence of multiple viewpoints, be found in this painting?



The objects are disposed around the table in a seemingly casual fashion that gives an impression of movement, depth and life. Analysis of the composition to see how this is achieved reveals a series of oddities. For instance, the focal point of the painting, the solitary apple at the front of the table, is at the geometrical centre of the picture plane, where the two diagonals cross. This should set the tone for a very strict and formal arrangement but in fact the opposite is true.

The main objects are arranged roughly in a triangle or pyramid with its base resting on a horizontal line just below the midpoint which might also coincide with the tabletop.


As for the table, it is not clear whether it is parallel to the picture plane or at an angle. This question has given rise to conflicting interpretations including the theory of multiple viewpoints. Confusion arises because of the ambiguous dark area in the lower left. Is it the table or is it fabric? Close examination reveals at least two different patterned fabrics [in the painting], a beige and green one on the right and a dark red and green one on the left.3 There is a possible third fabric with a big pattern and a border underneath the white cloth. The slanting dark line on the far right might represent the continuation of this cloth draping over the corner of the table. Seen in this way it’s possible that the table is in fact parallel to the picture plane.

In support of this argument, Meyer Schapiro sees the overall mass of the objects as roughly horizontal across the picture2; a search of the internet shows that CÚzanne placed the table parallel to the picture plane in the great majority of his still lifes; and a cloth somewhat similar to the proposed third cloth occurs in another painting4, 5.

Another oddity is that the plate of apples on the left is markedly tilted. It may be propped up by something under the cloth. In fact, CÚzanne is known to have used wooden blocks and books to raise or tilt objects. In at least one of his still lifes such a block is actually visible1.

So, while the tilted plate and the ambiguous table angle could be used to support a theory of multiple viewpoints, a more mundane explanation is also possible.


Strong modeling of forms is generally associated with muted colours. CÚzanne is unusual in that he created strongly modelled forms that are remarkable for the intensity of their colour. So a part of his achievement and influence lies in this harmonizing of colour and form, a brightening of the palette without sacrificing three dimensionality.

Likewise, his compositional strangeness -- tilted plates and leaning verticals – may have arisen from a desire for order without rigidity. According to one source CÚzanne’s purpose was to “lock” his compositions in place, to give them total stability.6 However, this painting and other still lifes are notable for their informal atmosphere. Could CÚzanne have been motivated in part by a desire to make stable compositions that were yet informal and free?

Finally, CÚzanne’s use of blocks to tilt objects forward is at variance with the theory of multiple viewpoints. It is unclear however what is meant by “multiple viewpoints” since different authors use the term in very different ways.7 This in turn leaves open the question of what specifically in CÚzanne’s art may have led to the development of Cubism.


  2. Meyer Schapiro,
  3. -- fabric #2
  4.  -- fabric #3?
  5. -- fabric #3?


May 08, 2005
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago


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