Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) was audacious in many ways, but especially in the vivacious and undisguised process of exploration and discovery with which he developed his paintings. Take the Large Bathers. It’s not naturalistic; there are logical parts and then parts that satisfied his need for a bit of dark or light someplace–the upper left and right corners, for example. Every painter faces such requirements, but most conceal the necessity by throwing in some convincing bit of scenery. Cezanne doesn’t bother. He paints till he gets the formal hit he wants, and then leaves it alone.
And then there are the smaller-scale improvisations. The foreground woman in the detail on the left–again, she’s not naturalistic, but she’s very carefully developed. Her back is thickly painted with a palette knife–warm & cool tones in great variety which nevertheless do not describe a woman’s back. No spine, for example.
But even more surprising than that is the way Cezanne draws over and around the figure. That long silhouette that begins at her left armpit and then swoops all the way around to her right leg, ignoring the intricacies of waist and butt that would detain most painters. And even odder, braver, more questing, is the linework on her right side–detail right. That little line drawn with loose paint that departs from her arm and wanders out onto her side. Imagine if it weren’t there–the torso would take on the shape of a great pipe. That line gives her a waist. Barely, but it works. And the lines on the outside of the arm, correcting or at any rate finishing out the contour of the shoulder.
And while we’re there, the blue line of the next figure that drives right over the white fabric, which would otherwise dominate the figure. He doesn’t bother to invent a more realistic shape or location for the fabric, he just has it both ways at the same time.
Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) painted this image of a friend in a Pierrot costume in 1883, when he was 24. He hadn’t yet developed the severe pointilist method for which he is principally remembered, but the basis of it is here: the shapes are clean and simple, enlivened by repeated touches of color. Compare with Chardin’s more conventional approach (below), in which the background is simply the ground color with a mottled application of the shadow tone.
Another point of contrast is Seurat’s exceedingly restrained use of counterchange–the device of having the background go from dark to light in one direction, while the principal object goes from light to dark. The effect is to create a sense of space. But Seurat makes the darker side of his figure almost indistinguishable from the lighter side of his background. This way he gets the visual bounce from the contrast on the left, but has almost no depth of space at all. This keeps the whole image on one plane, and emphasizes the abstract quality of the shapes.
He undermines depth still further by having the wall meet the floor right at the tip of Pierrot’s shoe. Picture that division at, say, the top of the blue bow. That would place the figure a foot or two out from the wall, and define the space for the rest of the image. As it is, the floor constitutes little more than a reddish stripe along the bottom of the composition, stitched to the rest by that foggy left leg.