Although such recognition eluded him in his lifetime, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) is now considered the father of modern painting. He reduced the visible world into basic, underlying shapes, and his faceted brushstrokes reconstructed nature through painterly forms. Pablo Picasso declared Cezanne “my one and only master,” and Henri Matisse called him “father to us all.”
“He creates an alternative world where things can move and exist improbably, exploding and evading the traditional containment of the ‘silent life of things,’” says Benedict Leca, director of curatorial affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario.
Cezanne was a favorite of collector Albert C. Barnes, and today, the Barnes Foundation has 69 Cezannes in its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
Through Monday, September 22, the Barnes is hosting 23 additional Cezanne works for “The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne.” The exhibition is curated by Leca and comprised of works on loan from institutions as far away as Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and as close as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, just down the parkway.
The paintings — with subjects ranging from fruit and flowers to skulls — are spread airily through the rotating exhibitions gallery, in contrast to the paintings hung chockablock in Barnes’ iconic salon style throughout the permanent galleries — adhering to the terms of the collector’s will.
Born to a wealthy banker in Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne’s closest childhood friend was the novelist, playwright, and essayist Emile Zola. To comply with his father’s wishes, Cezanne attended law school at the University of Aix. Encouraged by Zola, Cezanne moved to Paris to pursue his artistic passions. He soon hooked up with influential painters Camille Pissarro, August Renoir, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley, and was included in impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and 1877.
Wielding his palette knife to apply thick paint strokes, he presented as a rough-hewn maverick, brash and unkempt, who flouted the artistic and critical establishments. He used the still life to forge his artistic identity as a path breaker. Working with his hands suited him more than working as a lawyer. The palette knife was previously associated with mixing paints, rather than applying them, and offers less control over the paint than a brush. Cezanne used his thumb to push the paint
In Paris he adapted the range of the still-life painter’s props — fruits, crockery, and bottles — flouting the artistic and critical establishments and engaging in esthetic dialogues with his artistic peers. But still life did not have the same prestige as historical, religious, or mythological painting in the eyes of the French Academy.
Cezanne was a notoriously slow painter, and the subjects of a still life, unlike human models, could wait for him to finish. Even so, he used paper flowers and artificial fruits, because live materials would spoil by the time he came back to them. Apples, on the other hand, were all around him on his father’s estate in Provence. It was the symbol of temptation and sin, of knowledge, and — as the object awarded by a Greek mortal to the fairest goddess during a contest — of feminine beauty. The apple communicated his pursuit of the universal and focus. “I want to astonish Paris with an apple,” he famously said. In turn, he was known as the painter of apples.
The apples on Cezanne’s canvases do not make you want to reach out and take a bite. They are all about the brush strokes from which they are made. He was fascinated by their compact geometry and used them to explore applications of paint. The brush strokes were intentionally visible because he wanted to underscore that these were paintings, not attempts to imitate the real thing. To further drive the point home, elements of the studio are visible in the compositions: a tube of paint, a canvas leaning against a wall.
When Barnes began collecting Cezanne in 1912, his purchases were regarded by some as folly. He wrote in 1914: “I love his crudity, his boldness of statements, his apparent lack of skill in the handicraft of painting, and the absolute sincerity of the man.”
Although Manet — whose own groundbreaking work paved the way for impressionism — expressed ambivalence about Cezanne’s talent, he said his still lifes were “powerfully treated.”
Cezanne made a splash in 1866 with a still life submitted to the Salon, the most prestigious art exhibition in Paris. The painting skewed perspective, and the Salon promptly rejected the painting.
His still lifes were also landscapes. The table becomes the land, the fruits and bowls are mountains, and a draped tablecloth is a reflective sea. Cezanne believed inanimate objects had lives: “People think a sugar pot doesn’t have a face, a soul. One needs to know how to apprehend, to coax, these gentlemen. These glasses, these plates, they converse among themselves. Objects never cease to live.”
Cezanne liked to experiment with color combinations in apples. His backgrounds were muted grays and browns that helped make the greens, reds, and yellows of the apple sing. Even his backgrounds, unfinished at the edges, represented a statement away from finished realism.
But it’s not all apples at the Barnes. Flowers were an important element to his still life practice, and daisies and peonies proliferate. He also played with real and artifice, contrasting flowers in vases to their representation in textiles. His painted flowers, from paper models, are so thickly painted you want to run your hand across the canvas. Compare to the flatly painted floral design of the tablecloth.
Cezanne kept Provencal props — ginger pots, olive jars, faience sugar bowls and milk jugs, and simple unadorned furniture that linked his artistic identity to the rustic and craft traditions of his native regions. Working on a still life, in the domain of the studio, enabled him to shape his environment and isolate himself from modernity.
The artist expresses his obsession with death through images of skulls. He painted skulls as if they were apples stacked on a platter, and is noted to have said, “How beautiful a skull is to paint.” His studio had them lined up on a mantel. Sometimes an apple is just an apple, a skull is just a skull, and for an artist who loves to paint what cannot move, it is an ideal way to study the structure of human anatomy.
The purpose of the rotating exhibitions is to get you to come back to the Barnes and this exhibit does just that, in an appropriate way. It is another chance to see the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects design, with its facade of Negev limestone, rippled to resemble cuneiform text, or the floor made of repurposed boardwalk from Coney Island, not to mention the 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Chaim Soutines, 16 Amedeo Modiglianis, 7 Van Goghs, and so much more, including Native American textiles, African tools, and Pennsylvania German furnishings.
On the second floor, a Provencal cabin in a landscape by Cezanne integrates architecture, trees, landscape, and sky. This is among his simple pastoral scenes with surprises — an off kilter roof or pine branch. Cezanne shows how a scene looks from different perspectives at different times. He does not finish them at the edges so the viewer is always aware this scene is no more than paint on canvas.
Once enmeshed in the collection, you also have the chance to study all those little works of art, some in ordinary frames, many by late 19th and early 20th century artists Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, Horace Pippin, even Paul Klee, whom Barnes first started collecting toward the end of his life. I even spotted a tiny Marc Chagall tucked into a corner.
My only beef with the Barnes is, in the salon setting, you want to get up close to see the minute detail, but when you step over the brown line on the floor a security guard promptly puts an end to your investigations.
The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Summer Hours, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., through Monday, September 22, $15 to $29 for exhibition and collection, $10 to $22 for collection only, (Children 5 and below free at all times). For more information, visit www.barnesfoundation.org.