Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5) by
Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5)
HOW TO UNDERSTAND
By 1890 Cezanne had developed a unique style of painting, which adopted some of the characteristics of Impressionism (loose, unfinished brushwork, commonplace themes) as well as certain expressionist features (subjective approach, shallow picture plane, non-naturalistic perspective, multiple viewpoints), that are more associated with 'Post-Impressionism' - although this term remains rather vague. These comments apply to Cezanne's landscape painting and still life painting, as well as his figurative works, all of which he laboured over with his customary slowness. Several of the elements of so-called Post-Impressionist painting that were pioneered by Cezanne, were later used in forms of abstraction like Analytical Cubism, and also by some participants in the Classical Revival, thus adding to his reputation as one of the founders of modern art, but making his art almost unclassifiable in the process!
This work was painted during the same period as other Impressionist portraits, such as: Man Smoking a Pipe (1892); The Card Players (1892-6); Boy in the Red Vest (1889-90); Lady in Blue (1900); and Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900). It was painted during the high point of Cezanne's 'classical' manner, when he sought to represent nature through a combination of geometrical motifs such as cylinders, spheres and cones. It was acquired by a private collector who donated it to the Louvre Museum in 1956 on the 50th anniversary of the painter's death. Since 1986 it has been in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay.
Woman with a Coffee Pot (La femme a la cafetiere) is one of Cezanne's most monumental pictures, and one of those in which he best attained the aim of his researches. Commenting on this picture, the art critic Lionello Venturi (1885-1961) wrote: "The Woman with a Coffee Pot gives the impression of an imposing natural force. She is planted there like a strong tower." Before this human monument, one naturally thinks of that austere kind of classicism practised by the great Piero della Francesca, who enclosed his individuals in all the power of their destinies.
The vivid colour of this portrait contributes to its monumental character. Cezanne customarily 'built' his pictures by means of the richness of his colour.
Two questions occur to us, looking at this woman. Who was she? And where was this picture painted? No one knows for certain. It is thought that it was done at Jas de Bouffan, the Cezanne family home near Aix en Provence, although neither the setting nor the accessories reoccurred in any of Cezanne's other paintings. The sitter has not been firmly identified, but is believed to be one of his servants. Cezanne rarely used professional models, preferring to paint his wife, Hortense, or people he knew well like his servants, gardeners or other labourers. This was partly due to his shyness and partly because he worked with a painstaking lack of speed.
The painting is essentially a study of forms rather than character. Cezanne is not interested in the psychological aspect. He would rather in fact have an insignificant, shy, sitter, whose humility and indifference would not upset his irritable nature. Indeed he insisted on absolute stillness, the stillness of still-lifes. ("Do apples move?" he once irritably asked a sitter, who moved after being exhausted from holding the pose for a long period.)
The principal features of the composition the woman's figure, the cup and the coffeepot are painted in a highly abbreviated manner using a strict arrangement of horizontal and vertical lines. And as with almost everything Cezanne painted at this time, viewpoints change across the canvas. The table top, for instance, is seen from above, while the woman and coffee pot are viewed from the side. This non-natural perspective became a defining component of Cubism at the hands of Picasso (1881-1973) and Braque (1882-1963).
Despite these subjective distortions, Cezanne still manages to capture the woman's rough hands and plain but dignified face, revealing - as in other works like The Card Players and Man Smoking a Pipe - his strong sympathy for simple people who live unchanging lives.
Family Reunion (1867) Musee d'Orsay. By Frederic Bazille.
Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) Musee d'Orsay. By Manet.
Portrait of Berthe Morisot With Violets (1872). By Edouard Manet.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) Musee d'Orsay. By Renoir.
Absinthe (1876) Musee d'Orsay. By Edgar Degas.
Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-1) Phillips Collection. By Renoir.
El Jaleo (1882) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. By John Singer Sargent.
For analysis of other Post-Impressionist paintings from the 1890s, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION