Cezanne, Forest Interior c1890
Cezanne, Forest Interior (Sous Bois), c 1890, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Last week we made a trip to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see Cezanne and the Modern, an exhibition of matchless paintings and watercolours, mainly by Cézanne, but with works, too, by Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, and Degas – all of them from the Pearlman collection, and on show for the first time ever in Europe.

Henry Pearlman was an American businessman from New York who, in 1919, founded the Eastern Cold Storage Company that soon became prominent in the marine refrigeration business.  The wealth accumulated from his business enabled Pearlman to become one of the great American collectors.  From 1945, with his wife Rose, he bought ‘with great discernment’, starting with Soutime and Modigliani before moving on to the artists who influenced them – especially Cezanne and the Impressionists.  He hung his collection in his homes as well as his New York office.


Henry Pearlman in his office at Eastern Cold Storage, New York

It’s the Cezannes that we came for, and they dominate this exhibition – twenty-four works, including sixteen watercolours  and six oil paintings.  Together they constitute one of the finest and best-preserved groups of his watercolours in the world, the majority of them Provençal landscapes.

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890–94

Cezanne, House in Provence, 1890-94, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The highlight of the exhibition for me was the extraordinary group of Cezanne watercolours ranging from the early 1870s to the final days of his life. With his pencil Cezanne boldly and firmly sketched the angular forms of trees and their branches.  Then, taking up his brush he subtly suggested their foliage in strokes of muted blues, greens and greys.  Two of the best examples are ‘Forest Interior’ (which is, we are informed, in the tradition of what was a favourite subject of French artists in the mid-19th century: the sous-bois) and the one which I would like to have hanging on my own study wall, ‘Path, Trees, and Walls’.  It’s almost abstract in its rigorous composition and geometric planes, and – like most of these watercolours – with areas of paper left blank to reinforce the effect.

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900

Cezanne, Path, Trees, and Walls, c 1900,  watercolour with traces of graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This is Alastair Sooke writing about these wonderful watercolours in the Telegraph:

Pearlman worshipped principally at the altar of Cézanne. The core of his collection was an enviable group of 16 watercolours by the French Post-Impressionist. […] These are subtle, glittering works of art, suffused with unexpectedly large areas of cream and off-white, where the paper is allowed to shine through from the background, contributing to a general atmosphere of freshness and brightness.

Using this technique, Cézanne could skilfully summon the lustrous skin of a pear, sunlight irradiating the façade of a house in Provence, or the bleached, luminous cranium of a skull. To accent the graphite design of his underdrawing, Cézanne applied tiny patches and strips of translucent colour, like silk scarves shimmering in a summery breeze. These pictures have the evanescent, sparkling beauty of a dragonfly swooping before your eyes.

Perhaps the most striking example of Cezanne’s radical approach is  ‘Undergrowth’ , a study of a tangle of trees and shrubs composed of rhythmical touches of watercolour made around 1900.  Is this abstraction or realism? Both, perhaps.  Does it even matter?  Not if we consider Cezanne’s own words:

Painting from nature is not a matter of copying the subject but of expressing one’s feelings.

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04

Cezanne, Undergrowth, ca. 1900–04, watercolour and graphite (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

Cezanne, Forest Path, ca. 1904–06

Cezanne, Forest Path, c 1904–06 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Forest Path’ must have been one of the last watercolours that Cezanne worked on.  It’s another radical work that, through as network of pencil lines and brushstrokes, builds up an almost abstract pattern to produce an impression of great richness.

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904

Cezanne, Route to Le Tholonet, 1900–1904, oil on canvas (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The oil paintings here by Cezanne are stunning, too. ‘Route to Le Tholonet’ was first sketched in graphite, then not entirely re-worked (whether intentionally or not) leaving the foreground – in the words of the exhibition guide – ‘unfinished in any conventional sense’.

Le Tholonet was a hamlet with an imposing manor house at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire. From 1887, Cézanne had rented a small room there at Château Noir, where he stored his material and works in progress. Between 1887 and 1905, Cezanne painted many oils and watercolours around Château Noir, including the unfinished house that he saw through the trees, the cistern and the well, the pines, the rocks and the caves at the cliffs – and Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted almost obsessively.

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900

Cezanne, Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, c 1900 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

‘Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir’ is ‘a serene and elegiac late landscape’.  Three poles over the cistern echo the strong diagonal outline of the rock in the centre of the painting and make a contrast with the upright forms of the tree trunks.

In 1902  Cezanne moved into the Lauves Studio where he painted the final series of oils and watercolours that is considered to be his supreme achievement.  This view of Mont Sainte-Victoire is unusual in its vertical format.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c 1902 (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

This exhibition is brilliantly concise, consisting of only three rooms. While the first focuses on Cezanne, the second room is entitled ‘Impressionism and Beyond’, with works by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Courbet, Degas, Daumier and Van Gogh, alongside one two more by Cezanne himself. There were two paintings here that I really appreciated.

Alfred Sisley, The Seine at Verneuil, 1889

Alfred Sisley, River View, 1889  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The first was Sisley’s ‘River View’.  Like many of his Impressionist colleagues, Alfred Sisley painted villages on the outskirts of Paris, both along the banks of the Seine river to the west and surrounding the Forest of Fontainebleau to the south. This painting used to be titled ‘The Seine at Verneuil’, but there is no record of Sisley ever painting there. The consensus now is that it was painted on the Seine or Loing River near Moret, and the original title was lost. It is, however, indubitably a ‘river view’ – and a highly evocative one.  The landscape shimmers in heat haze, and the leaves of the poplars seem to shiver in a light breeze. The blue summer sky has been richly worked by Sisley in swirls of oil paint reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. Curiously, perhaps, the painting reminded me of a stretch of the river Mersey near Didsbury, just south of Manchester.

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888

Van Gogh, Tarascon Stage Coach, 1888  (view full screen at Pearlman Collection here)

The other striking painting in the second room was, in fact, by Van Gogh.  ‘The Tarascon Stagecoach’ was painted in one sitting in the courtyard of an inn in Arles, and is as vibrant and vivid in colouring as any of his paintings. Pearlman bought the painting – which Van Gogh experts knew existed but had been unable to trace – from a dealer in Argentina.  Van Gogh had mentioned the work in his letters, in one instance citing finding inspiration in a novel by Alphonse Daudet, published in 1872, in which a stage coach laments its glorious past, before the advent of the railway. 

The third room of the exhibition is entitled ‘Figurative Modernism in Paris’, and I have to admit I found little here to excite me after the foregoing jewels. The room is dominated by the densely painted canvases of Chaim Soutine which fairly shriek at you.  In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager made this interesting observation about why Pearlman might have been drawn to these overwrought canvases:

Pearlman was a positive, energetic American entrepreneur who had never visited Europe; Soutine was a neurotic, alienated émigré who died in 1943 on the run in Nazi-occupied France. But collector and artist had common roots: they were born, two years apart, to poor Russian Jewish parents, and America made both their fortunes – Pearlman founded the Eastern Cold Storage Insulation Corporation in 1919, Soutine was starving and unknown when Philadelphia millionaire Albert Barnes became his patron in 1922.

In his review for the Telegraph Alastair Sooke commented somewhat critically on Pearlman’s significance as a collector :

The catalogue reprints Pearlman’s short memoir Reminiscences of a Collector. Down-to-earth and gossipy about the art trade, it is enjoyable but also striking for its lack of impassioned engagement. He doesn’t attempt to explain why he considered himself a “worshipper of Cézanne”, for instance. Instead, he prefers to talk about the cut and thrust of negotiating with wily dealers. I guess he was a businessman, after all.

As a result, Cézanne and the Modern offers a reminder of the dispiriting way in which the market can diminish artworks by turning them into trophies for the very wealthy. Like Pearlman, I’m happy to worship Cézanne, but I don’t see why we have to bow down before rich collectors as well.

I absolutely agree with Sooke’s observations: too many great works of art are bought up by wealthy collectors and then disappear from public view (in some cases in these times of austerity, cash-strapped public institutions are forced to sell great works in order to survive.  In the case of Pearlman, though, it must be said that since the mid-1970s, the Pearlman Collection has been on permanent loan to Princeton University, where students and gallery visitors have been able to study the works. The Pearlman Collection website also offers a worldwide internet audience the opportunity to study the watercolours, drawings and oil paintings in remarkable detail.

See also

9 thoughts on “Cezanne in Oxford: glorious paintings from the collection of the man who sold fridges

  1. I found myself being drawn back to the Three Pears. So elegant. Really enjoyed the exhibition and your piece.

    1. Yes, I have probably unfairly weighted this review towards the great landscapes. You’re right about being drawn back to favourites – in a small exhibition like this you have that chance.

  2. I have a special place in my heart for Cezanne. Way back, when I was in college, I invited a fellow student to spend Thanksgiving with my large Italian family. She was an exchange student from Germany and didn’t have anyone to spend the holiday with. As a thank you, she gave me a beautiful art book – Cezanne’s Works…
    AnnMarie :-)

  3. Thanks so much for giving me another perspective on this exhibition. I must admit I didn’t enjoy it very much, but that was mostly because of the extreme noise levels permitted by the Ashmolean in their exhibitions. Lots of people talking very loudly in a space which doesn’t absorb sound (also because i had endured enormous crowds at the Chelsea two days before so was hypersensitive!) This week it was a wonderful contrast to be in a much more crowded exhibtion at the National Gallery’s Veronese and find people were much quieter and also were asked to be so by the staff, something the Ashmolean staff say they can’t ask. Personally, however, I still felt that this collector didn’t get the best of the bunch, but the ones you pick out here to talk about were certainly my favourites. The Van Gogh is so much more vivid and exciting in real life – no reproduction can even begin to capture the colours. Next time you’re in Oxford it would be great to meet – the Ashmolean has lovely cakes!

    1. Thanks, again, slithygimble. I agree: no reproduction can ever compare to seeing a painting in the flesh, so to speak. It’s the same with music heard live – you think it’s going to be as good in high definition stereo, but it’s always a million times better. I did like Oxford, and would hope to be back sometime.

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