Begin with the brushstroke: ‘The Art of Paul Cézanne In and Out of the Studio’
To understand art history is to understand artists’ practices, and there’s no better way to scrutinize a great painter’s techniques than to observe the canvas directly, says John Elderfield, the Adler Distinguished Curator of European Art at the Princeton University Art Museum and a lecturer in art and archaeology at the University.
In teaching this semester’s “The Art of Paul Cézanne In and Out of the Studio,” Elderfield took his class into museum galleries to examine the French post-Impressionist’s works down to their original underdrawings and brushstrokes.
Elderfield taught the course directly from the museum’s collection, where he curated a concurrent exhibition titled “Landscapes Behind Cézanne.” The exhibition, made possible by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Curatorial Leadership Fund, is open to the public through May 13.
Elderfield also brought his 10 students — a mix of undergraduates and graduate students from a range of disciplines — on field trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“I always feel the more works of art I can get them in front of, the better,” Elderfield said. “Looking is a process that delivers an effect of viewing things that are subliminal. When [the students] understand that, they understand. Artists do not make images, which are reproducible, but paintings, which are not reproducible.”
Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, came to Princeton in 2015. In 2017, his book “Cézanne Portraits,” with curators Mary Morton and Xavier Rey, was published by Princeton University Press.
The idea for the exhibition — and the overall focus of the class — came from a previous Princeton course Elderfield taught on Cézanne (1839-1906) in 2015, which focused on Cézanne’s landscape watercolors from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection, which were on display at the art museum.
Elderfield said examining Cézanne’s transformational works made him think about how artists approached landscapes before Cézanne, and so he asked Calvin Brown, associate curator for prints and drawings, what earlier landscapes on paper were available at the art museum.
Brown pulled numerous works from the museum’s reserves, and Elderfield and his students viewed them for comparison in the museum’s study room.
The “Landscapes Behind Cézanne” exhibition was built from Elderfield’s teaching. In all, there are about 20 works spanning the 16th through the 19th centuries, including drawings and photographs. The Cézanne watercolors from the Pearlman Collection included in the exhibition are rotated weekly to avoid overexposure to light.
Cézanne, Elderfield explained, often created a parallel of what he was observing. “It was a record of it, not a transcription,” Elderfield said of Cézanne’s landscapes. “It’s a construction of color units which provide an equivalent to a perception of a modern scene.”
“What is wonderful about this project is how it considers artists who went before Cézanne and who investigated the land and made landscape images in similar ways, and yet how it reveals — almost inadvertently — the simple fact that Cézanne managed to do something altogether new in the history of art,” said James Steward, the Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director of the art museum. “It’s also a great testament to the depths of our collections.”
Steward suggested placing the other artists’ works directly behind the Cézanne paintings, mirroring the exhibition’s title and intention.
“Encountering the physical objects as they hang among their counterparts, thrust into context with other, related works of art, changed my experience of Cézanne,” said Ariel Kline, a first-year graduate student in art and archaeology.
At the National Gallery of Art, which has on display “Cézanne Portraits,” an international exhibition co-curated by Elderfield, the students were joined on their tour by Allen Adler and his wife, Frances Beatty Adler, who endowed Elderfield’s curatorship and supported the exhibition.
Said Kline: “I learned that Cézanne’s painting was not incidental, but the work of methodical calculation and plotting. And I learned — I think most importantly — that Cézanne is an artist whose work is inflected by biography, and that biography can be interesting and important.”
Kline and her classmates had an opportunity to share their own insights at a discussion of “Landscapes Behind Cézanne” on April 6 at the art museum. Elderfield invited Tim Barringer, the Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art and chair of history of art at Yale University, and Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery in London, to join him in a panel discussion after which the students acted as docents in the gallery.
Elderfield said that what he hopes his students take away from the class is that understanding art is an inductive process. “You should give the works a chance to speak to you and then test them against things,” he said.