Cézanne’s Letter to Pissarro: Picture Business Isn’t Going Well

The French master wrote to fellow painter Camille Pissarro to cheer him up, jeer at Monet, and coin the saying that painting isn’t ‘a playing card.’ From the new collection The Letters of Paul Cézanne.

To Camille Pissarro

L’Estaque, 2 July 1876

Mon cher Pissarro,

I’m obliged to reply to the charm of your magic pencil with an iron point (that’s to say a metal pen). If I dared, I should say that your letter is imprinted with sadness. The picture business isn’t going well; I fear that your morale may be colored a little grey, but I’m sure that it’s only a passing phase.

I’d much rather not talk about the impossible, yet I’m always making plans that are very unlikely to come to fruition. I imagine that you would be delighted with the country where I am now. There are great annoyances, but I believe they’re purely accidental. This year, it’s rained for two days every week. That’s astounding in the Midi. It’s unheard of.

I must tell you that your letter surprised me in L’Estaque, by the sea. I haven’t been in Aix for a month. I’ve started two little motifs of the sea, for Monsieur Chocquet, who had talked to me about it. It’s like a playing card.* Red roofs against the blue sea. If the weather turns favorable perhaps I’ll be able to finish them off. So far I’ve done nothing. But there are motifs that would need three or four months’ work, which could be done, as the vegetation doesn’t change here. There are the olive trees and the pines that always keep their leaves. The sun is so fierce that objects seem to be silhouetted, not only in black or white, but in blue, red, brown, violet. I may be wrong, but this seems to be the very opposite of modeling.** How happy the gentle landscapists of Auvers would be here, and that (insert three-letter word here) [con, or ‘bastard’?] Guillemet. As soon as I can, I’ll spend at least a month in these parts, as one must do canvases of two metres at least, like that one of yours that was sold to Fore [The Hills at L’Hermitage, sold to the opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure].

If we have to exhibit with Monet, I hope our cooperative’s exhibition is a flop. You’ll think me a swine, possibly, but our own affairs must come first. [Alfred] Meyer [the treasurer], who doesn’t have any grasp of the successful elements of cooperatives, seems to be becoming totally impossible; in trying to bring forward the Impressionist exhibition, he is actually damaging its prospects. This might exhaust public opinion and lead to confusion. First, too many exhibitions one after another is a bad idea, and second, people who think they’re going to see Impressionists see nothing but cooperatives: cooling off. But Meyer must be absolutely determined to damage Monet. Has he made any money? Another question – now that Monet is making money, since that exhibition was a success, why would he fall into the trap of another? As soon as he is successful, he is right. I say Monet, meaning Impressionists.

Meanwhile I rather like Monsieur Guérin’s gentlemanly approach, waddling about with the riffraff of rejected cooperatives. I may be putting forward these ideas a little crudely, but I don’t have much subtlety at my disposal. Don’t hold it against me, we’ll talk about it when I get back to Paris; we can have our cake and eat it. And if having the Impressionists as background can help me, I’ll show the best I have with them, and something neutral with the others.

My dear friend, I’ll end by saying, like you, that since some of us have shared views, let’s hope that necessity will force us to act together, and that self-interest and success will strengthen the bond that goodwill alone so often fails to consolidate. Finally, I’m very happy that Monsieur [Ludovic] Piette [Pissarro’s friend] is on our side. Remember me to him, my respects to Madame Piette, to Madame Pissarro, my very best wishes to all the family, my warmest regards to you, and fine weather. Imagine, I’m reading La Lanterne de Marseille and I’m going to subscribe to La Religion laïque. How about that!

I’m waiting for [Jules] Dufaure [President of the Council] to be laid low, but from now to the partial renewal of the Senate there’s still plenty of time and plenty of traps. Yours ever. Paul Cézanne

If the looks of people round here could kill, I’d have been dead a long time ago. They don’t like the look of me.

I’m thinking of coming back to Paris at the end of this month; if you reply before that, write to:

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Paul Cézanne

Maison Giraud (dit Belle)

Place de l’Église, L’Estaque

Banlieue de Marseille.

*This letter would become one of Cézanne’s most celebrated, and the card analogy entered the culture. “Music is not a ‘playing card,’ to adapt Cézanne’s remark on painting,” wrote Pierre Boulez almost a century later; “‘depth,’ ‘perspective,’ ‘relief’ have an important part to play.” one of the pictures for Chocquet became The Sea at L’Estaque.

**“The very opposite of modeling” meant roughly that Cézanne and Pissarro would lay

down one plane or patch of color next to another, without any “modeling” or shading between them, so that it looked as if each component part of the painting could be picked up from the canvas a little like a playing card from the table. In the canvas that made such an impact on Cézanne, The Hills at L’Hermitage (1867), the houses on the hills give just that illusion.

From The Letters of Paul Cézanne by Alex Danchev. Copyright © 2013 Alex Danchev. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.