The Apples of Cezanne

Art and the World II

In his remarkable essay “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still-life” Meyer Schapiro tries to make a profound psychological analysis of the use of still-life in Cezanne’s works, based on the meaning and the conscious and unconscious relevance of the painter’s choice of subject matter.

In his attempts to underline certain features of the 19th century artist’s paintings Schapiro relies on connections and references to the painters who most significantly influenced Cezanne, especially the impressionists that preceded Cezanne. The author uses a large variety of artists and works, from classical Greek statues to Manet, from Raphael to Van Gogh. He also refers to publications by Cezanne’s friend Zola and to the correspondence between them for making generalizations about the role of still-life and the basis for psychological and thematic interpretation of Cezanne’s works.

The article begins with a reference to the controversial painting “The Amorous Shepherd”, mistitled “The Judgment of Paris”. “The least conspicuous of the three nudes” is approached by the alleged Paris with an armful of apples. “The verses of Propretius might account for the youth in shepherd’s clothes bringing apples to the girl…” but “they leave unexplained the role of the other figures in the painting”. Because of this Schapiro assumes that “one can regard them as accessories… they assure the innocence of the shepherd’s gesture and allude to an imaginary world where nakedness is natural and the shepherd’s desire is admitted.”

In such a manner the author presents the painting as pastoral, showing the how a shepherd offers apples to a shy girl. He also relies on “the many classical allusions” in the letter written by Cezanne to Zola. The idea is also enhanced by the episode from their lives when their friendship starts. Back in school Cezanne stands for Zola, who’s ostracized by his fellow-students and Zola brings a big basket of apples on the next day as a sign of gratitude.

So there is Cezanne: he read and loved the ancients; his sexuality is connected with that of ancient poetry; the symbols remain potent for him.

In his study Schapiro is not concerned by the technique of the artist or its originality. He pays much more attention to the meaning that lies behind the choice of subject matter and the relevance of the connections to Cezanne’s personality. The author uses the means of psychoanalysis to reveal the conscious and unconscious reasons for the artist’s preoccupation with still-life. Schapiro’s interpretation is one of literary critique concerning the paintings’ use of thematic elements. His combination of biographical information, countless citations of the personal correspondence of the painter and the help of some conclusions based on the author’s imagination leads to the idea of the psychological and sexual context of the apple motif in Cezanne and the way he portrays women.

In his work Schapiro argues that Cezanne paints the apple as if he’s painting a mountain or a woman. The author thinks that these still-life paintings express the relationship between the space they occupy and the mysteries of the world. He states that “The work of art is itself an ostensible object of handling like certain of the simulated and real objects that compose it. Without a fixed place in nature and submitted to arbitrary and often accidental manipulation, the still life on the table is an objective example of the formed but constantly rearranged, the freely disposable in reality and therefore connate with the idea of artistic liberty. The still-life picture, to a greater degree than the landscape or historical painting, owes its composition to the painter, yet more than these seems to represent a piece of everyday reality.”

Even though Schapiro defends his thesis very convincingly, he himself admits that it’s largely based on speculations: “This sketchy formulation, suggested by psychoanalytic theory, leaves much unexplained, I must admit, in the painter’s devotion to still-life. It abstracts a single factor from a largely hidden, complex and changing process of artistic work.”

Because of the choice of subject for Schapiro’s study the omission of formalist analysis is completely comprehensible. But the question if such critique could have strengthened the argument with its inclusion stays. The essay gives very profound and fascinating reading but leaves doubts