Cézanne falls short

A tiny bit of unpainted canvas

The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.


Figure 1 : Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne


To assess its significance, let us place scarcely visible area of raw canvas in the context of Antonio Tapies’ comment on Van Gogh’s chair. In the Spanish artist’s view, such an everyday object as a chair would be “hardly worth looking at”, if it were not for the richness of its associations and connotations. What made it such a rich subject for a  painting was that it meant so much for Van Gogh, and because it resonated with our mental picture of him. Similarly, we might be inclined to think that nothing could be less interesting than a tiny patch of bare canvas. How could something so minuscule be seen as anything but a blemish? How could an absence of paint be worth looking at?


Figure 2 : Ambroise Vollard’s knuckle


Cézanne asks for forgiveness

Nor would there be any question of excusing the artist on the grounds of it being a deliberate mistake, analogous to the Allah-placating deviations from symmetry found in the designs of the Islamic carpet makers. In a contrite letter to Ambroise Vollard, sent from his home situated hundreds of miles away in the South of France, Cézanne explained why he had not turned up to his Paris studio for the 106th sitting.  Hoping that his patron would understand and forgive him, he admitted that he had fled from the Paris because even he could not face the 100 or more additional sittings that it might take to rectify matters.

Error of judgement

The simple truth that Cézanne had to face up to was that he had committed a serious error of judgement. By leaving this patch to last, he had painted himself into a corner: He would not longer be able to produce a colour for it that would be the right degree of colour/lightness difference relative to the immediately neighbours. The only way of rectifying the situation would  require him to have change these. But that would not be all.  He would then have to change all the colours adjacent to them. Indeed, he would have to continue modifying until every single one of the colours on the picture-surface had been given the right relationship with all the other colours. Only by dong so would he be able to meet his self-imposed criteria of never repeating a colour.

A new significance

As well as being a very human story, Cezanne’s failure to complete his painting provides an insight into the degree of perfectionism and rigour which he brought to his work. When we realise this, the patch of bare canvas takes on a new significance. It becomes a doorway into the artist’s mind and a telltale sign of his lofty ambition. In these ways, it reveals itself one of the most telling and significant patches of colour in the history of painting. Surely Tapies would have seen it in this light?


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13 thoughts on “Cézanne falls short”

    1. Thank you Sarah, you have made an important comment. Unless, they leave a record, we can never be sure of an artist’s motivations. However, the example of Ambroise Vollard’s knuckle opens up the possibility that even far-from-completed works by Cézanne were abandoned because the artist realised, at quite an early stage, that he had painted himself in an situation that could only be resolved by massive repainting. We might even suspect much bitter experience of past failures of this nature behind his decision to quit on the portrait of Ambroise Vollard.

  1. merci de ce partage sur l’exigence de la recherche de Cezanne dans cette oeuvre. N’est-ce pas aussi la sensibilité et la pratique qui permettent de juger de la justesse de la relation d’une couleur avec les autres couleurs? Je me demande aussi quelle est la valeur du sentiment exprimé dans : “j’aime” ou “je n’aime pas” devant un arrangement de couleurs, par le peintre lui-même ou par un spectateur.

  2. Insightful. Thanks for pointing out this significant detail and why it is significant. I am usually so impressed by what he has on the canvas that I don’t usually think about what is not….which is everything else there is available to be there! Choices…his agonized choices!

  3. Thanks for these insights into the work of Cézanne. I find this to be a good example of the interplay of colors within a work of art.
    As an aside, I keyed in on Cézanne’s retreat to Paris and now allow myself a ‘time out’ when frustrated with my relationship to my ‘art space.’

  4. What is left unfinished becomes an entirely new point of interpretation? Sometimes seriousness and determination gives way to justification and surrender. Thanks Cezanne for inspiring these insights.

  5. Thank you for this. I just spent about an hour in the Cezanne room of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. I stared and took photos. And, stared again. Why, I kept asking myself, are these paintings so transporting? So satisfying? Why can I not reach an end of looking at them with so much pleasure? I don’t have the answer. But, after reading this post I feel I have some understanding of the painter’s passionate integrity. Again, thank you.

  6. Just reread this excerpt on Cezanne. A very telling story of his perfectionism indeed. What I find interesting is that, at least I believe, Cezanne eventually incorporated this aspect of “non-fini” into his later work, deliberately. So many of his late Mont Sainte Victoire paintings are “unfinished,” and this, it seems to me, became part of his aesthetic. One sees resonance of this in the work of Joan Mitchell, albeit non-representational.

    1. Thanks for this Ken. Perhaps you are right about Cézanne deliberately incorporating as aspect of “non-fini”, but I prefer to think that the lack of finish was a consequence of him feeling that he could not go on because he found had painted himself out of lightness/colour space. We know that this is what happened in the case of Ambrose Vollard’s knuckle and it is almost impossible to believe that he did not often come to the same conclusion at an earlier stage. And if he did, it is easy to him imagine him being just as upset at having to abandon a work upon which he had spent many long hours. This would certainly fit well with his cry from the heart that “painting is so damn difficult”. Do you have any evidence that he liked the unfinished look? Toulouse-Lautrec certainly did and made no secret of the fact. But did any one else do so at the time? However, as covering the entire picture surface is a requirement of achieving Cézanne’s stated goal of creating “a harmony that runs parallel to nature”, I find it difficult to believe that he would enjoy quantities of bare canvas, in the way later artists, with different priorities, have done.

      1. Responding to your question regarding evidence that Cezanne liked the unfinished look, I have no secondary sources to verify this and instead call upon primary sources: his multitude of water colors and his late Sainte-Victoire paintings that abound with unpainted portions of paper or canvas, respectively. I’ve read a lot on Cezanne over the years, particularly when I studied at the Marchutz School of Fine Art in Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne’s hometown, but sadly do not retain all that I’ve read. My suspicion, however, is this: Finished vs. Unfinished is a matter of perspective. What is unfinished to one may certainly look finished to another. Perhaps Cezanne came upon an impasse while painting his artworks, which left them in this “unfinished” way. In other words, he went as far as he could and called it finished because he couldn’t imagine doing anything more to the painting to improve it, which, if he did continue, would otherwise wreck it. Somehow, I believe, due to his dogmatic nature, Cezanne appreciated something about this unfinished look and intentionally incorporated it into his practice, using the white of the canvas or page as a color-space generating device that allowed his paintings to breathe in a way a completely covered canvas would not.

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