An image of Banks of the Marne

Paul Cézanne

(France 19 Jan 1839 – 22 Oct 1906)

Banks of the Marne

Other titles:
The banks of the Marne
Location
19th & 20th c European art
Further information

‘There’s everything in it to please the art lover’. That was the art dealer Ambroise Vollard’s verdict on Cézanne’s painting, ‘Bords de la Marne’. “A river, a boat with people in it, houses in the background, trees,” continued Vollard, who remembered this painting appearing in the first exhibition of Cézanne’s held in his gallery in Paris in 1895.

Vollard remembered it quite accurately: ‘Bords de la Marne’ is a majestically composed landscape which epitomises Cézanne’s classical qualities. Painted on a canvas of his favourite dimensions (63 x 79 cm), Cézanne set out zones of sky, buildings, embankment and water in a sequence of horizontal bands – which is a distinctive mannerism of many of his landscapes.

A horizontal line defines a state of equilibrium. Generally speaking, Cézanne’s art was always a quest for inner balance. In his paintings and drawings “all is connexion, interchange, a ceaselessly shifting and reasserted balance of unbalanced forces,” noted Jack Lindsay. It may come as a surprise to realise that the monumental impression given by ‘Bords de la Marne’ does not depend on any underlying geometrical figures, pre-established proportions or symmetrical arrangement of forms. This pictorial architecture has been intuitively improvised from scratch. The sense of harmony and inevitability it conveys to the viewer is a result of Cézanne’s brilliant instinct for pictorial integration and the infallible plumb-line in his mind’s eye. (Such a keen sensitivity to the inner balance of an image can be regarded as the equivalent, in a visual artist, to the gift of perfect pitch or perfect time in a musician.)

‘Bords de la Marne’ was painted during Cézanne’s “underground” years, a period that extended from 1877 to 1895. He stopped exhibiting in the Impressionists’ group exhibitions, stopped sending paintings to the Salons and virtually dropped out of sight from the Paris art world. “One shouldn’t be astonished that Cézanne hesitated so long and so constantly,” Henri Matisse explained: “There are so many possibilities in him that, more than other artists, he needed to put order into his brain.”

Putting order into his brain meant putting order into his art. Cézanne painted and drew relentlessly. He used this period of his invisibility and anonymity in the art world to consolidate the body of work that would win him acclaim, from 1895 onwards, as the supreme modernist master. Cézanne was fortunate in being financially independent, which relieved him of any thought of painting to please and painting to sell. Such was his disinterestedness, integrity and uncompromisingly sincere commitment to his art that he became a role-model for several generations of modern artists.

Almost every summer he and his family would rent an apartment or take rooms in a hotel somewhere in the Ile-de-France, usually within visiting distance of Impressionist colleagues like Pissarro, Monet or Guillaumin, or near old friends like Emile Zola and Paul Alexis.

‘Bords de la Marne’ was painted not far from the eastern outskirts of Paris. This is a region that has attracted many generations of artists, beginning with Watteau in the 18th century. The Paris-Mulhouse railway line opened in 1854, making the closely adjoining towns of Alfortville, Créteil, Joinville, La Varenne Saint-Hilaire, Chennevières, Saint-Maur, Champigny and Joinville readily accessible to painters from Paris. Corot, Pissarro, Guillaumin and the Douanier Rousseau all painted in or near this cluster of towns. Cartier-Bresson took some famous photographs of working-class picnickers on the banks of the Marne and Jacques Tati filmed ‘Mon Oncle’ in Joinville.

Cézanne must have enjoyed the area very much. There are twenty or so paintings in his catalogue raisonné which may be identified (some more tentatively than others) with sites along the Marne. Due to the fact that Cézanne didn’t sign, date or title his paintings, many aspects of his “underground years” are an insoluble riddle. Nonetheless, John Rewald and Walter Feilchenfeldt, the authors of the catalogue raisonné, propose for the Marne landscapes a range of dates that extend over quite a long period: 1888-90; c.1894; 1895-98; 1904. Although there is an element of guesswork to these dates, they offer proof that Cézanne had a special fondness for this region and returned many times to paint it. The painting ‘Bords de la Marne’, like Cézanne himself, has spent a period of time “underground” – that is to say, it has been out of the public eye. It has been in one family’s private collection for more than a hundred years. Originally it formed part of the legendary Pellerin collection, and has remained until now with Pellerin’s descendants.

Auguste Pellerin made a fortune manufacturing margarine. He began collecting Cézannes in 1899, and it is estimated that at least 150 of Cézanne’s paintings passed through his hands. At its apogee his collection numbered more than a hundred Cézanne paintings as well as some watercolours. His house in Neuilly was visited by various artists, including Paula Modersohn-Becker and Henri Matisse (Matisse painted Pellerin’s portrait in two versions). The magazine L’Amour de l’art, edited by Waldemar George, proposed to reproduce all the Cézannes in Pellerin’s collection and commissioned Roger Fry to write an essay to introduce them. This essay became the basis of Roger Fry’s ‘Cézanne: a Study of His Development’ (1927) which remains among the greatest books ever written about Cézanne.

“M. Pellerin’s collection is so much the most representative of all the various phases of Cézanne’s art in existence, that a study of it is essential to understanding its development,” Fry acknowledged. ‘Bords de la Marne’ was reproduced as Figure 26 within his book. TM

Year
circa 1888
Media
Painting
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
65.0 x 81.3 cm canvas; 86.0 x 102.5 x 11.0 cm frame
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Credit
Purchased 2008 with funds provided by the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation, the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, and donors to the Masterpiece Fund in joint celebration of the Foundation's 25th anniversary and Edmund Capon AM OBE's 30th anniversary as Director of the Gallery
Accession number
320.2008
Provenance
Ambrose Vollard, Paris/France
Auguste Pellerin, Paris/France
René Lecomte, Paris/France, née Pellerin, by descent
Private Collection, by descent
Cyrille de Gunzburg, Paris/France, Purchased by the AGNSW from Cyrille de Gunzburg 2008