One of the fascinations of the prime work of Paul Cezanne is how he builds his compositions by a process of minute discovery. A new book, Cezanne Portraits by John Elderfield, is full of wonderful examples. “Madame Cezanne” is one.

It’s instructive to compare Cezanne’s execution with Edouard Manet’s in a work of similar size. Manet goes for the strong hit. The blacks are all pushed very black, the background bright and simple to set off the figure, the face essentially done in three tones: decisive, rich, and strong.

 Madame Cezanne  18 x 15″   1885-6    

Berte Morisot   21 x 14″ 1872

















Whereas Cezanne goes in the opposite direction. The result is strong, but not by virtue of a few big decisions. It’s built up of many small-scale explorations. In painting, no brushstroke is ever exactly as intended. You can regard that as an imperfection to be corrected, or as opening, perhaps, some intriguing, unanticipated direction. Cezanne clearly follows the second method. Follow the line of the jaw, chin, and cheek. A rather washy blue shape starts at the ear, then is dropped and then picked up again. It’s strengthened by a thin, darker blue line that passes around the chin, paralleled by another, below. Then a thicker, darker blue line/shape; then, all the way around the face to the eye, a succession of little lines, not tentative but also not bossy, sometimes within the modeling of the cheek and sometimes just outside it. The effect is descriptive, but also painterly to the nines, almost abstract, intricate and fascinating.


Look at any feature – the mouth, the ear, the modeling of the cheek – you find the same process of exploration and discovery and delight, with nothing assumed, nothing taken for granted.

Cezanne was notorious for making his models sit perfectly still through endlessly protracted sittings while he did his thing. You can see why from the result.


“Madame Cezanne” is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


I had seen Charles Sheeler’s work before, but it was only while pondering several of his things in “The Cult of the Machine”, the show at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, that I noticed his systematic use of fine black lines around almost all his shapes.

“American Landscape” 1930


You’d think such a mechanical device would be stultifying, but in fact it enables the delicacy of his tonal progressions. In this detail, the brights and shades, and especially the roofs and sky, are so close in value that without those lines they would have to be modeled much more robustly. By keeping the tones light and close he is able to keep this complicated little cluster of buildings as a unified bright shape in the center of his composition.


Even more surprisingly, we find him using the same device in his masterpiece, “Rolling Power.”

“Rolling Power” 1939

All those shapes, and even tonal shifts within shapes, sit on a layin of tiny black lines.


Of course, Sheeler didn’t invent the device. In this example from two hundred years before, Tiepolo saves his big, simple architectural shape from going mushy by throwing in a scattering of tiny black lines. 

Tiepolo “The Charlatan” 1756












My own art education happened when painting was bigger, splashier, more abstract. We were never taught this stuff. But there are always interesting new things to notice if you pay attention.



Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967) was an adroit painter, but his best work is not given to painterly luxuriance. His images revolve around their surrealistic joke, and the more simply and directly the point is made, the better. Imagine “The Son of Man” as richly composed and modeled as “Alfred Flechtheim.” The effect would be absurd rather than surrealistic. 

“The Son of Man” 1964

Otto Dix “Alfred Flechtheim” 1926


















Which is not to say that his works are not well painted. They are. Both day and night parts of “The Dominion of Light” are sensitively done. There are rather a lot of clouds in the sky, to make the point that it’s full day, and not dawn, and houses and trees are lively, albeit low key. But the trees, especially, are kept dark, strong, and simple, for contrast – lively silhouettes, but nowhere near as interesting as they would be if Magritte were not holding them in.

“The Dominion of Light” 1950


Similarly, the two skies in “The Grand Family” are each kept simple so that the grand point, the bird, doesn’t get lost.

“The Grand Family” 1963


The works shown here are included in a show of Magritte’s work currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art. It includes these and some other wonderful pieces together with a larger number that are pretty humdrum. The problem with works that depend on a joke is that once you’ve seen it, repetitions and slight variations have little to add, and incite comparisons of quality in which most examples can only disappoint.




A saucy challenge often underlies cultural fashion: This isn’t blowhard nonsense, it’s the New Real Thing! Don’t you get it?

For example, “Julian Schnabel: Symbols of Actual Life” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Coming into the courtyard you are confronted by six 24-foot-square canvases (all titled “Untitled,” which is perhaps just as well) and three large plaster –– well, sculptures, for want of a more mordantly descriptive term.


The intention of all this, apparently, is to immerse the visitor in the esthetic experience of Actual Life. It does not. You wouldn’t look at these canvases twice if they were 24 inches instead of feet. Nor have they any resonance with the courtyard, its formal architecture, the prominent focus of the space — Rodin’s “Thinker”– or Actual Life as I, at any rate, have experienced it. The excitement apparently consists of their being painted in gesso on expanses of “found fabric”, and the fact that they are so daringly exposed to the elements. 



The three sculptures in the courtyard are plaster lumps. The one above, with the branches sticking up, is “Helen of Troy.” The piece below is “Gradiva”. Gradiva is an ancient Greek figure, “the woman who walks.” Schnabel’s contribution to this theme is opaque to me.


Gravida [Wikipedia]




















There are more pieces inside. Here, in a gallery featuring more Rodins, hangs “Untitled (The Sky of Illimitableness)”: a jokey picture of a goat with silly, as if daring, swoops of paint across it. 


Rodin’s St. John the Baptist seems to be making a break for the exit. You can’t blame him.