Cézanne and His American Acolytes

by Stephen May

Still Life Against Flowered Wallpaper, 1909

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, up-and-coming young American artists routinely sojourned in Paris, the art capital of the world, where they studied at prestigious institutions, attended influential salons and viewed works of the old masters and the avant-garde. If they could not make the journey, artists examined publications with reproductions of European works, old and new, and attended exhibitions of works by European modernists. Avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism inspired America’s best painters. No European artist exerted greater influence on this side of the Atlantic than Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). To some extent, Americans were interested in Cézanne’s subjects and styles during each phase of his life, but particularly his last quarter century. In Paris in the 1860s, he rendered traditional themes in an expressionist manner and produced serene Impressionist canvases in the 1870s. In the 1880s, he retreated to his native Aix-en-Provence and used experimental techniques to define an exciting new mode of painting. Cézanne wrote: “What I wanted was to make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums…. I shall always be grateful to the group of intelligent art lovers who…have sensed what I was trying to do to renew my art…one does not replace the past, one only adds a future link to it.”1 American artists were especially influenced by the French master’s flattened perspectives, astutely structured compositions and use of color to define form. He was regarded by many as both a formalist who excelled at organizing compelling compositions and a mystic whose art penetrated beneath the surface of things.
Americans in Paris viewed Cézanne’s work in museums and galleries, and visited the salon of Leo and Gertrude Stein. The Cone sisters of Baltimore, Claribel and Etta, frequent guests at the Steins’ home, collected French and American modernist works and carried the avant-garde message across the Atlantic. In New York, pioneering photographer and avant-garde art impresario Alfred Stieglitz played a vital role by displaying the works, at his celebrated 291 Gallery, of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, and championing the work of their early American modernist followers. Cézanne’s influence on specific American avant-garde artists was beautifully conveyed in a first-ever exhibition on the subject, “Cézanne and American Modernism,” organized by Chief Curator Gail Stavitzky for the Montclair Art Museum, where it opened last fall, before traveling to the Baltimore Museum of Art and Phoenix Art Museum. It featured works by Cézanne and over thirty American modernists who followed his lead.2 Americans adapted ideas about Cézanne’s style to his favorite subjects: landscapes, still lifes, bathers in landscapes and figurative works.

Some, like Marsden Hartley (1877–1963), worked in all three genres. Hartley, a lonely bachelor from Maine, started out painting powerful, visionary landscapes of his native state, and traveled to Europe, Mexico and New Mexico seeking subjects. Hartley was initially impressed with Cézanne’s watercolors, adopting the Frenchman’s subtle lines and colors and his use of areas of white paper to create form, in expansive watercolor landscapes of the German Alps and New Mexico. In Hartley’s still lifes, stimulated by viewing the Cézannes at the Steins’ salons, he fashioned “a new body of work that creatively layered the styles of Cézanne and Cubism,” writes Hartley authority Patricia McDonnell in the exhibition catalogue.3
Hartley’s veneration for Cézanne led him to settle near the Frenchman’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence, where he lived off and on for three years in the late 1920s. Hartley rented a room in the Maison Maria, a building at Chateau Noir, an estate outside Aix, where Cézanne rented studio space in the main chateau, 1887–1902. He depicted Chateau Noir’s buildings and surrounding landscape, frequent subjects for the master from Aix, in a Cézannesque style. Captivated by the rugged terrain and strong light, Hartley used a high-keyed palette to paint Cézanne’s favorite subject, Mont Sainte-Victoire, the majestic mountain that looms over Aix. The only American to successfully portray the great peak, Hartley painted it a number of times, often from angles replicating Cézanne’s, but with more imaginative colors: purples, greens, blues, yellows, reds and oranges. Hartley wrote that Cézanne’s works “are not cold studies of inanimate things, they are pulsing realizations of living substances.”4 Returning to Maine at the end of his life, Hartley created memorable paintings of the state’s highest peak, Mount Katahdin, that resonate with his Mont Sainte-Victoire canvases in solidity and imaginative color. His massive, tanned lifeguard at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach is a direct descendant of one of Cézanne’s male bathers.
Another versatile artist, John Marin (1870–1953), denied the inspiration of Cézanne, but his spirited brushwork and use of color to define space and distance suggest otherwise. Marin could not have spent so much time in Paris, 1905–1910, without being exposed to Cézanne’s art. During this period of intense exploration, Marin was drawn first to the art of James McNeill Whistler, Pierre Bonnard and the Nabis, as he honed the fine drawing skills gained through his architectural training. During travels in the Austrian Alps, Marin created some of the finest early work, such as a loosely brushed, multi-hued Mountain in the Tyrol (1910). It exemplifies what National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine calls his “more explosive and experimental approach, one in which his watercolors were marked by a looser paint application, brighter colors, and subjects far grander in scale.”5 Raised in New Jersey, Marin developed a great love of nature, which translated into a career largely devoted to landscapes. After studying architecture at Stevens Institute of Technology and working briefly as an architect, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Students League, before traveling to France. He had his first one-man exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. Marin’s close association with Stieglitz and his circle kept him in touch with the modernist thinking of his time. These contacts accelerated his use of arbitrary colors, a more intimate relationship to his subjects and efforts to represent the dynamic flux that infused nature.
Marin continued to live in New Jersey, but spent most summers after 1914 along the coast of Maine, which stimulated his personal blend of calligraphic line and fluid color. He depicted New York City, the Hudson Valley, New England and New Mexico. Wherever he went, he sought to apply Cézanne’s principles to help capture the dynamism, energy, rhythms and movement of his subjects. Distinctly modernist in their expressiveness, by the late 1920s his watercolors (and occasional oils) began to reflect the influence of European Cubism. In his New Mexico watercolors of adobe structures and even more so in his panoramic mountainscapes, such as Taos Mountain, Pueblo and Mesa (1929), “Marin echoed his predecessor [Cézanne] in examining a visual source from multiple vantage points, and in his sensitive balance of painted hue and white paper,” says Fine.6 Marin’s efforts to distance himself may well be traced to his desire to distinguish his more spontaneous, precisely observed oeuvre from Cézanne’s more aloof and formal style. The way he adapted European avant-garde influences into a personal style—using skyscrapers and bridges to express his keen response to New York City, and mountains, sea and sky to capture the vibrant air and light of the Maine coast—made Marin one of the most creative and original of the American modernists.
Arthur G. Dove (1880–1946), who painted the first American abstractionist work around 1908, fell under the sway of Cézanne during a stay in France, 1908–09, with his friend and fellow modernist Alfred Maurer. William C. Agee cites Dove’s lush painting, Still Life against Flowered Wallpaper (1909), as reflecting “a new solidity…a tactile materiality of color and thus form…basic tenets of Cézanne’s art. The color is higher keyed than his earlier work, indicating that Dove…was looking at Cézanne, at least in part through the eyes of [Henri] Matisse.”7 This same interest in Cézanne’s solidity and Matisse’s bright Fauvist colors manifested itself throughout Dove’s career. His life on or around water, notably New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island Sound, and his interest in the effects of sunlight, led to glorious evocations of sunrises and sunsets on water. In a 1924 Sunrise, for example, Agee says: “The expansive bursts of light are translated into something concrete, in a carefully plotted system of color and paint application, a fusion made through contiguous, tightly knitted parallel brushstrokes that recall Cézanne’s passage. Dove employed this technique in much of his work through the 1920s and 1930s.”8
Dove started communing with his great friend, Alfred Maurer (1868–1932), another underappreciated modernist master, around the middle of the latter’s stay in France, 1897–1914. Raised in New York, the son of Currier & Ives artist Louis Maurer (who disliked his son’s progressive art), Alfred dropped out of school to work as a commercial artist, and studied at the National Academy of Design before departing for Paris. Stimulated by visits to the Steins’ salon, he abandoned his successful, Whistlerian work and took up the brisk colorism of the Fauves and the formal manner of Cézanne in powerful, richly hued landscapes, still lifes and figure studies. According to Maurer authority Stacy B. Epstein, “Maurer emerged in 1906 as one of the first Americans to demonstrate a nuanced and intuitive understanding of Matisse and Fauvism…filtered through the lens of Cézanne.”9 Maurer invoked the strident colors of Matisse and the compressed space and compositional arrangements of Cézanne in his work, which has begun to gain greater visibility in recent years.10
Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924), famed for his colorful, tapestry-like watercolor renditions of crowds on beaches and sidewalks, was arguably the first American artist to admire Cézanne. Born in Newfoundland and raised in Boston, Prendergast made part of his career in New York, where he was a member of The Eight. Sojourns in Italy and France stimulated his avant-garde tendencies. Prendergast particularly emulated Cézanne’s bathers in his depictions of chaste nudes by the sea, but also created strong, Cézanneseque portraits and still lifes, borrowing from the French master while maintaining his individual style.

Jersey Silkmills, 1911

Trained as an architect in Germany, Oscar Bluemner (1867–1938) came to this country in 1892 and took up painting around 1910. He studied Cézanne incessantly throughout his career while honing a style that emphasized the bare essentials of buildings and landscapes. In compelling, hard-edged, brilliantly colored works like Jersey Silkmills (Paterson), 1911, repainted 1917, he sought to implement the manner in which, he said, “Cézanne dismisses what is not essential to the unity of the idea: the inherent is necessary, the incidental is not wanted.”11
Two of the more interesting characters in twentieth-century American art were, for a time, Cézanne followers. Man Ray (1890–1976), born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia, became a painter, photographer and filmmaker in New York and Paris, with associations with Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Living in a small rural art colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, in the wake of the Armory Show of 1913, he channeled Cézanne motifs into landscapes, still lifes and figure studies such as Departure of Summer (1914).12 Later, Man Ray famously invented “rayographs” (cameraless photographs) and constructed “readymades” (altered found objects), along with Marcel Duchamp. Another name-changer, Arshile Gorky (1894–1948), born Vasdanig Manoog Adoian in Armenia, came to the United States as a teenager and adopted many styles throughout his abbreviated career. In the late 1920s, he turned out likenesses that are close approximations of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, rural landscapes and still lifes with fruit, bowls and white cloths. Gorky studied reproductions of Cézanne landscapes before setting out to sketch Provence-like areas of Central Park or Staten Island, and often had settings for as many as thirty still lifes arrayed around his studio, on which he worked in assembly-line fashion.13 Thereafter, Gorky turned for inspiration to Picasso, Matisse, nature, memories of his Armenian childhood and biomorphic forms, helping to lay the groundwork for Abstract Expressionism.
A revelatory aspect of “Cézanne and American Modernism” was the number of painters from the Southwest, some of whom, never having seen an original Cézanne, relied on reproductions. Several came to the regional hub of modernist art, New Mexico, at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who in 1917 transplanted her avant-garde salon from Manhattan to Taos, and entertained Hartley, Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Dasburg. All admired the crisp, clear air that brought out the best in the rugged terrain, the panoramic vistas of varied topography, the geometric quality of mountains, mesas and canyons, and the venerable architecture of blocky adobe houses and stacked pueblo dwellings. Jeffrey Smith remarks: “The area has often been noted for its topographical similarity to Provence and Southern France, which provided artistic challenges for artists more accustomed to working in a moister climate.”14 Among the most knowledgeable artists in the region was Parisian-born Dasburg (1887–1979), who emigrated to New York as a teenager, studied under Robert Henri and spent two years before World War I in Paris, where he came under the sway of Cézanne and Matisse. Following a stint painting abstractions in Woodstock, New York, in 1918, he visited Luhan, and stayed in New Mexico the rest of his life. Dazzled by the light, landscape and people of the region, he worked in blocks of bold color held together by sinuous lines in a semi-Cubist manner.
Born in Sweden and raised in Chicago, B.J.O. Nordfeldt (1878–1955) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Europe on several occasions, starting in 1900. While at first painting in subtle, Whistlerian tones, he soon incorporated Fauvist colors and Cézanne-like structures into his works. He spent time in Chicago, New York and Provincetown, where he used bright colors, geometric shapes and a view of a busy harbor to set off Cézanne-like figures of bathers. Settling in Santa Fe in 1920, Nordfeldt depicted Pueblo Indian ceremonies and created genre scenes and portraits of the area’s Hispanic population. Corn Dance, San Ildefonso (1919) captures the colors, movement and music of the event with Cézanne-like brushwork and blocks of rich color, while Covered Wagon (c. 1920) depicts a stolid couple riding beneath a canvas cover that frames a color-filled, mountainous landscape.
Master colorist William Penhallow Henderson (1877–1943) trained in Boston and Europe, taught and painted in Chicago, and moved to Santa Fe in 1916. He took a special interest in Indian and Hispanic cultures. In Holy Week in New Mexico—Penitente Procession (1919), he depicted with understanding (and his wife wrote tolerantly and respectfully about) Penitente rituals, showing hooded flagellants in white cotton pants lashing their bare backs, in scenes out of the Cézanne playbook. “Henderson’s Cézannesque planes of color emphasize his emotional response to the scene,” observes New Mexico art historian Joseph Traugott.15 Josef Bakos (1891–1977) settled in Santa Fe in 1921 and helped form the state’s first modernist organization, Los Cinco Pintores (The Five Painters), which included Willard Nash. None of the group had ever traveled to Europe; their exposure to avant-garde art was through reproductions. Bakos, nonetheless, created still lifes that recalled the master of Aix. His landscapes, painted in a broad, flowing style with rich colors, flattened space and careful structure, reflected his allegiance to Cézanne. During his lifetime, admirers of Nash called him the “American Cézanne.” After academic training in Detroit, he settled in Santa Fe in the 1920s, under the tutelage of Dasburg. His bold landscapes are marked by rectangular patches of color, simplified forms that capture the geometric shape of adobe structures and native terrain, and record contours and shadows with a superb color sense. He also created Cézanne-like flower still lifes, female nudes and a pipe-smoking Self-Portrait. Nash achieved a degree of national recognition in the 1930s.16
It seems likely that Cézanne will continue to inspire artists for generations to come. The work of our early modernists added a notable chapter to American art history, and bodes well for future artists who follow his lead. Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still observed in 1935: “The ultimate realization of Cézanne’s contributions remains with the artists of the future.”17

1. Quoted in Baltimore Museum of Art release of “Cézanne Quotes,” 2010.
2. The catalogue for the Montclair exhibition is highly recommended, as is that for a comparable show, “Cézanne and Beyond” (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009).
3. Gail Stavitsky and Katherine Rothkopf, Cézanne and American Modernism (Montclair: Montclair Art Museum and Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2009), p. 214. Adds McDonnell, “The strong graphic matrix…[in a Hartley still life] evokes the sway of Cubism, and the selection of fruit and textured fabrics suggests Cézanne.”
4. Marsden Hartley, “Whitman and Cézanne,” Adventures in the Arts (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922), pp. 30–36.
5. Stavitsky and Rothkopf, op. cit., p. 238.
6. These works, Fine adds, “feature the dynamic and dramatic sky…hovering above warm earthy tones and muted greens denoting land.” Ibid. Marin’s spacious pictures of arid New Mexico landscapes advanced the cause of modernism in the southwest.
7. Ibid., p. 206.
8. Ibid. The painting in question, Sunrise, is a scintillating composition of broad expanses of greens, grays, reds, whites, purples and especially brilliant yellows. It is the kind of brightly colored work that inspired Dove’s artistic soulmate Georgia O’Keeffe.
9. Ibid., p. 245.
10. Epstein has curated and written important catalogues for Maurer exhibitions at Manhattan’s Hollis Taggart Gallery and is involved in a traveling Maurer show being organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Andover Academy. Grace Glueck, commenting on Taggart’s 1999–2000 Maurer retrospective, said the painter was “revealed once again as a dazzling colorist, bold experimenter and the master of several styles.” New York Times (December 10, 1999), p. B50.
11. Quoted in ibid., p. 172.
12. Like many of his fellow artists, Ray was overwhelmed by the Armory Show, which introduced European modernism to America and included numerous works by Cézanne. Months later, on a weekend camping trip in New Jersey, he awoke one morning and spotted several fellow female campers bathing in a nearby stream. “We watched the nude figures moving about through the branches,” he recalled. “I thought of Cézanne’s paintings, and made a mental note of the treatment of figures in a natural setting, for future works.” Quoted from Ray’s Self-Portrait in ibid., p. 276. Ray’s Departure of Summer, with its simplified forms and flattened planes, resembles Cézanne’s bathers.
13. See essay by Morgan Library & Museum curator Isabelle Dervaux in ibid., pp. 208–209.
14. Phoenix Art Museum curator Jeffrey N. Smith in ibid., p. 119. Smith points out that Hartley, for example, when he first visited New Mexico in 1918, was overwhelmed by the “magnificent sculptural country” and, like Marin, had to familiarize himself with the topography before hitting his stride artistically.
15. Joseph Traugott, The Art of New Mexico: How the West Is One (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2007), p. 61. Art historian Julie Schimmel astutely observes of Henderson and other empathetic artists of the Penitente ceremonies: “They could not expunge its sensationalism, but through the grave demeanor of the figures and deliberateness of compositions, they suggested a sympathetic response.” Charles C. Eldredge, Julie Schimmel and William H. Truettner, Art in New Mexico, 1900–1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe (Washington: National Museum of American Art and New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), p. 137.
16. In 1931, Diego Rivera called Nash one of the six finest artists in America.
17. Quoted in Stavitsky and Rothkopf, op. cit., p 125.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2010, Volume 27, Number 4