The conservator’s eye: Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne, in the Conservatory, 1891, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] I’m on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Jim Coddington, the longtime chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art. We’re standing in front of “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory,” this extraordinary painting of his wife.

Jim Coddington: [0:19] When I, as a conservator, look at a painting, I’m looking both at what we can see and cannot see, trying to understand the artist’s studio practice.

[0:27] Cézanne would have started with a selection of his stretcher size. A stretcher is a wooden construction around which the canvas is stretched. These stretchers were commercially available. They had actually developed a system of sizes that could be ordered by an artist. The next step would be to apply a sizing.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] So, the textile itself is too smooth.

Jim: [0:47] It’s too absorbent. Whatever layer you put on next, which is called the ground layer, might get absorbed into the canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] In Cézanne’s case, often that ground is visible.

Jim: [0:58] We do see the ground layer, not only where it’s not been painted, but where he has integrated it into the composition.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] Now, there are choices with the color of the ground. Here, Cézanne has chosen quite a luminous color.

Jim: [1:08] The first really important aesthetic decision the artist makes is, what color is the ground, what color am I going to be painting on? If you choose a dark or middle-tone ground, you paint away from the middle tone and the darks you paint against that middle-tone ground.

[1:22] Whereas if you’re starting with a white ground, then if you paint very thinly, the luminosity of the ground will shine through.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] We see that especially in the very thinly painted area in the lower-right corner, where we can see Madame Cézanne’s dress barely covers that ground.

Jim: [1:37] The next step for him would be to outline the forms of the composition with a graphite pencil. We can see the application of the graphite directly on the ground layer.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] The lines are so loose. It’s clear that he was not trying to define the edges of the fingers. He’s really trying to block out the composition.

Jim: [1:55] It’s very loosely done, as is the next layer, which are very thin washes of a blue paint. He’s not trying to outline and paint within the forms. He’s refining the composition as he goes along layer by layer.

[2:07] He then goes to other colors and begins to further block in the composition on the right side of the picture, where one sees some very thin applications of green.

[2:16] Then he also begins to mix some of the paints together. Some of the blues have a little bit of white mixed into them. He is just circling the problem that he has of the composition. As he continues on, the paint becomes thicker and more opaque.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] He’s taking colors that seem to belong to one area, and he draws them in to other areas. For example, the glove that’s closest to us has that beautiful ocher in it that you see in the area that surrounds her. It’s as if he’s finding applications as he has that paint on his brush.

Jim: [2:43] He is constructing form through fairly conventional devices. That ocher-ish form, which is slightly forward, is a warm tonality. The other glove is cool. Warm tends to come forward. Cool tends to go back. He is suggesting that one arm is catching a little bit of light. The other arm is in shadow.

Dr. Zucker: [3:02] That sense of opacity of the paint is clearest as we rise to the shoulders and the areas around the face.

Jim: [3:08] The amount of labor that goes into the various parts of the painting is quite diverse here. The thing that holds the viewer’s eye the most, which is her face, he has developed the composition most fully there. He continues to rework the face to get a sense of modeling and form. Again, using these techniques of warm and cool, but also light and dark.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] My eye moves fairly quickly over the more summary areas of the painting and, like a magnet, is drawn to that face.

Jim: [3:36] He is constantly adjusting, even the tilt of the head. You can see some working around the edges of her head.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] Although it is the most resolved part of the painting, there is still a certain degree of play because of some choices that he’s made, especially around the eyes — they’re so dense with that blue — but also because he’s left a little bit of the ground visible. Cézanne, through that open ground, through the visible graphite, gives us access to his process.

Jim: [4:02] And certainly points him towards subsequent painters who, in the 20th century, were very actively making their process evident.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] Those eyes are looking directly at us, and yet they’re not entirely available.

Jim: [4:16] I have to confess that I was really moved by the fact that this is somebody who he knows better than anybody in the world, and he is still trying to see and understand who this person is through the vocabulary that he uniquely has — the way he paints.

[4:30] Just around her shoulders, you can see that he’s applying a little bit of the warmer-colored paint that separates her in space and gives that head a little more dynamism.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] That’s a pure abstraction. This is nothing that exists in nature before him. It’s a reminder that the dynamic is not simply between what he sees and what is seen, but also between the artist and the canvas.

Jim: [4:50] For all of the presence of process and the evidence of how this painting was painted, we’re still captured by the unknowable and yet still fascinating stare of Madame Cézanne here. It seems like it’s not finished, but indeed it is very finished. It’s as if he is beginning with nature, but must finish with painting.

[5:08] [music]

Cite this page as: Jim Coddington and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The conservator’s eye: Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory," in Smarthistory, October 9, 2017, accessed April 23, 2024,