Contact Exhibitor
Artist NamePaul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Date of Artworkc. 1895
MediumWatercolor and graphite on paper
Size17 1/8 x 12 1/8 in. • 432 x 305 mm

Further Information

"Art is a harmony parallel to nature" - Cézanne

Cézanne, from his earliest years as an artist, felt a powerful urge to work from nature, convinced that "All pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside...I see some superb things, and I must resolve to paint only outdoors." When Cézanne made this watercolor, he had been working en plein air for three decades. Born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, he spent much of his career between his hometown and Paris. By the mid-1890s, he returned to Aix, and worked outdoors on a nearly daily basis for the remainder of his life. Drawn to the region not only for its familiarity, but also for its distinctive, bright light, pine trees, and rocky topography, he recorded, in endless and inventive variation, the place he knew best.

Sous-bois features a motif Cézanne often depicted: a closely observed forest scene eschewing any sign of nearby human activity. Defined by two trees stretching to fill the length of the sheet, the composition possesses symmetry and rhythm, with the marks of pigment dancing across the scene, generating a dynamic sense of structure. Abandoning the linear compositions and bounded forms of his earlier watercolors, Cézanne developed an increasingly free and gestural approach-here, he created a minimal underdrawing, dabbed on the diluted blue, green, and tan pigment, and then added some hatchmarks and a few other indications of modelling. It was also in these years that he began to make extensive use of negative space. In this work, a seemingly unfinished area between the trees may represent a clearing in the woods, or as the gray and blue contours suggest, large boulders in a pyramid-like construction. No color, perhaps, could better conjure the effect of radiant light than the blankness of the sheet of paper.

It is unknown exactly when and where Cézanne made this watercolor because he never dated his work. However, with its strong diagonals, central boulder, passages of blank space, and tangled branches, it possesses strong similarities to several works he made in the mid-1890s in the area around Aix (see images below). He observed, near the end of his life that "Here, by the riverbank, the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers a subject for study of the greatest interest, and so varied that I think I could keep myself busy for months without shifting my position, inclining sometimes more to the right, sometimes more to the left." For him, the nuances of natural forms, the shifting effects of light, and his own evolving ways of looking compelled him to come out each day and work with fresh eyes.

In his art, Cézanne sought to create images as alive and as authentic as what he observed in nature. Not interested in making illusionistic images of what he saw, he developed an approach that prioritized clarity-in his watercolors in particular, it seems as if each successive mark is visible. There is a sense that Cézanne's own process of making can be retraced, a quality that captures the pains he took to faithfully translate both what-and how-he saw. As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it, Cézanne's sustaining, yet paradoxical ambition was to unify "the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear."