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Cézanne's Still Lifes

Grade Level: 9–12    Curriculum Connections: Language Arts

Students will view film footage of Paul Cézanne’s actual studio in Aix-en-Provence and compare objects they see to his drawings and paintings in the National Gallery of Art collection. By selecting and arranging objects of their choice, they will complete their own still-life painting in watercolor washes and colored pencil. Last, they will write an essay either supporting or debating the once-prevailing notion that still lifes are the least creative in the hierarchy of genres.

cezanne

Paul Cézanne
French, 1839–1906
Still Life with Apples and Peaches, c. 1905
oil on canvas, 81 x 100.5 cm (31 7/8 x 39 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer

Materials

  • SMART Board or computer with ability to project images from slide show
  • Vases, dishes, bowls, fruit, flowers, and other still-life objects (students may also wish to bring items from home)
  • Table or clamp lights for casting highlights and shadows
  • Fabrics for draping on tables and/or hanging behind still lifes
  • Drawing and colored pencils
  • Watercolor paper or heavy card stock
  • Watercolors and brushes
  • Writing materials

Warm-Up Question

Does anything appear unusual or out of place in this painting?

Background

Paul Cézanne was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. By the second half of the 19th century, the region of Provence remained far removed from industrialization and avant-garde trends in Paris, the capital. Although Cézanne spent a lot of time in Paris studying art and adopting the impressionists’ broken brushwork and brighter colors, he repeatedly returned to his hometown, where he found the subjects he wanted to paint. In 1886, when his father’s death left him the family bastide (country estate), the Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne moved permanently to Provence (though he kept a Paris studio and made extended stays there).

Cézanne explored an astonishing range of subjects throughout his career: landscape, portraiture, figural scenes, and still life. Of all the genres, art critics and connoisseurs had believed for centuries that still life was the least imaginative. Cezanne’s still lifes, however—with their olive jars, lemons, and colorful printed cotton cloths—evoke a sense of place. In still life after still life he explored the correspondences among objects, searching for harmony and balance in form and color. Nothing seems random, and nothing was: Cézanne constantly rearranged these objects from his studio into different combinations and compositions, playing with multiple viewpoints.

In addition to small sculptures, household objects, and furniture, Cézanne was also drawn to fruit, which often appears freshly picked in his paintings. He confided to a friend that "they [fruits] love having their portraits done. . . . They exhale their message with their scent. They reach you with all their smells and tell you about the fields they’ve left, the rain that made them grow, the dawns they watched. When I’m outlining the skin of a lovely peach with soft touches of paint, or a sad old apple, I catch a glimpse in the reflections they exchange of . . . the same love of the sun, the same recollection of the dew, a freshness." (Quoted in Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations [London, 1991], 220.) Sometimes one wonders how these rounded objects didn't roll off Cézanne’s table. But in constructing his still lifes, Cézanne wished to showcase the objects themselves and would tilt the plane towards the viewer so we can get a better look.

Guided Practice

View the short film Cézanne’s Still Lifes at His Studio (below) and have students do quick sketches of five items they see. It may be necessary to replay the film a few times.

Film: Cézanne’s Still Lifes at His Studio

Next present the slide show Cézanne’s Still Lifes at the National Gallery of Art (below). Students should consider the following questions:

  • Do you recognize any of the objects you sketched from the film footage of Cézanne’s studio? If so, did the artist change anything or are they accurate depictions?
  • How does Cézanne distinguish between different textures? What colors does he use in the shadows?
  • According to the hierarchy of genres formulated in 16th-century Italy, history painting (including narrative religious and allegorical subjects) was the most highly regarded gnere, followed by portrait, genre (scenes of everyday life), landscape, and animal. Still-life painting was at the bottom of the list, as it was thought to merely replicate inanimate objects. Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Cite examples from Cézanne’s work that support your argument.

Slide Show: Cézanne’s Still Lifes at the National Gallery of Art

Activity

Using their observations of how Cézanne translated the objects from his Provence studio into paintings, students will now create their own still life:

  1. Students will select at least three objects from the classroom or brought from home and then arrange them into a pleasing composition. They may wish to use a viewfinder to assist in the process. They also should consider where these objects will be placed: on a table, chair, the floor, or somewhere else? Would they like to drape some fabric beneath or behind their still life? Where is their light source? They may want to either move their objects to different parts of the classroom or have personal lamps to cast highlights and shadows. Remind them that they will not just be depicting the objects in their still life but should also consider its environment.
  2. Students will sketch in pencil the outlines of their still life, reducing the objects into geometric shapes. They may wish to rearrange some of their objects to create a composition that should fill their paper.
  3. Students will use watercolor washes to fill in blocks of color. Squinting their eyes will help them see the darkest and lightest areas as well as distinguish where certain colors pop out at them.
  4. Once they have their painting completed, they should lay it on a rack to dry.
  5. At the next class, using colored pencils, they will add more details in their work of art: patterns on fabrics, motifs on vases, textures on fruit, etc.

Extension

Now that students have arranged and created their own still lifes, students will write an essay debating the merits of still life as an artistic genre, incorporating and discussing the works of other artists’ still lifes to support their arguments.

  • Describe your choices and decisions in the selection of the objects you used in your still life: Why did you pick these objects instead of others?
  • Describe your arrangement of these objects: Did you want certain objects next to others to show a relationship? Or was it to create a more pleasant composition?
  • Describe the style in which you painted and drew your still life: Did you paint exactly what you saw or did you alter things? If you changed something, what was it and why did you make that change?
  • Are there examples of still-life painting that you would consider remarkable? What characteristics of those paintings make you consider them remarkable as compared to other still lifes?
  • Do you feel the process overall gave you choices or were you just replicating what you thought still life was and what it should look like? Would you have had the same options if you were depicting a person or landscape?
  • Do you think there should be a hierarchy of genres? Does it serve a purpose or is it not necessary? Why? How has your experience painting a still life shaped your opinion?

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn10.1.HSIII Synthesize knowledge of social, cultural, historical, and personal life with art-making approaches to create meaningful works of art or design

VA:Cn11.1.HSIII Appraise the impact of an artist or a grou of artists on the beliefs, values, and behaviors of a society

VA:Cr2.1.HSII Through experimentation, practice, and persistence, demonstrate acquisition of skills and knowledge in a chosen art form

VA:Cr3.1.HSIII Reflect on, re-engage, revise, and refine works of art or design considering relevant traditional and contemporary criteria as well as personal artistic vision

VA:Re7.1.HSII Recognize and describe personal aesthetic and empathetic responses to the natural world and constructed environments

VA:Re8.1.HSIII Analyze differing interpretations of an artwork or collection of works in order to select and defend a plausible critical analysis

VA:Re9.1.HSII Determine the relevance of criteria used by others to evaluate a work of art or collection of works

More Lessons in this Unit

Related Resources

Download or borrow the Picturing France teaching packet with accompanying Classroom Guide, about 19th century painting in France

Play the NGAKids Still Life interactive

Listen to a short audio track on Cézanne’s “Still Life with Apples and Peaches”

Listen to a short audio track on Cézanne’s “The Peppermint Bottle”

Learn more about Cézanne in this online feature

Teacher Workshops

Register for evening and weekend teacher professional development workshops and apply to participate in the summer teacher institute