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Rainer Maria Rilke: A letter on Paul Cézanne

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne, c. 1880-1881

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to his wife Clara

Paris ; October 9, 1907

... Today I wanted to tell you a little about Cezanne. Insofar as work was con­cerned, he maintained that he had lived like a Bohemian until his fortieth year. Only then, in his acquaintance with Pissarro, did the taste for work open up to him. But then so much so, that he did nothing but work for the thirty latter years of his life. Without joy really it seems, in continual fury, at variance with every single one of his works, none of which seemed to him to attain what he considered most indispensable thing. "La realisation," he called it, and he found it in the Ve­netians whom he used fo see and see again in the Louvre and had unconditionally acknowledged.

The convincing quality, the becoming a thing, the reality height­ened into the indestructible through his own experience of the object, it was that seemed to him the aim of his innermost work; old, sick, every evening ex­hausted to the point of faintness by the regular daily work (so much so that he would often go to bed at six, as it was growing dark, after an insensibly eaten supper) ; ill-­tempered, distrustful, laughed at every time on the way to his studio, jeered at, mistreated, but observing Sunday, hearing Mass and vespers like a child, and very politely asking his housekeeper, Madame Bremond, for somewhat better fare : he still hoped from day to day, perhaps, to reach the successful achieve­ment he felt to be the only essential thing.

In so doing (if one may believe the re­porter of all these facts, a not very congenial painter who went along for a while with everybody), he had increased the difficulty of his work in the most obstinate way. In the case of landscapes or still life, conscientiously persevering before the subject, he nevertheless made it his own by extremely complicated detours. Start­ing with the darkest coloring, he covered its depth with a layer of color which he carried a little beyond that and so on and on, extending color upon color, he grad­ually came to another contrasting pictorial element, with which he then pro­ceeded similarly from a new center. I think that in his case the two procedures, of the observant and sure taking over and of the appropriation and personal use of what he took over, strove against each other, perhaps as a result of becoming con­scious; that they began to speak at the same time, as it were, interrupted each other continually, constantly fell out.

And the old man bore their dissension, ran up and down in his studio, which had bad light because the builder didn't deem it neces­sary to listen to the eccentric old man, whom they had agreed not to take seriously in Aix. He walked back and forth in his studio, where the green apples lay about, or in despair seated himself in the garden and sat. And before him lay the little city, unsuspecting, with its cathedral; the city for respectable and modest citizens, while he, as his father, who was a hatmaker, had foreseen, had become different; a Bo­hemian, as his father saw it and as he himself believed.

Studio of Paul Cezanne, Aix en Provence, South of France

This father, knowing that Bohemians live and die in misery, had taken it upon himself to work for his son, had become a kind of small banker to whom ("because he was honest," as Cezanne said) people brought their money, and Cezanne owed it to his providential care that he had enough later to be able to paint in peace. Perhaps he went to the funeral of this father; his mother he loved too, but when she was buried, he was not there. He was "sur Ie motif," as he expressed it. Work was already so important to him then and tolerated no exception, not even that which his piety and simplicity must cer­tainly have recommended to him.

In Paris he gradually became even better known. But for such progress as he did not make (which others made and into the bargain how), he had only distrust ; too clearly there remained in his memory what a misunderstood picture of his destiny and of his intent Zola (who knew him from youth and was his compatriot) had sketched of him in Oeuvre. Since then, he was closed to writing of all sorts: "tra­vailler sans Ie souci de personne et devenir fort", he screamed at a visitor.

But in the midst of eating he stood up, when this person told about Frenhofer, the painter whom Balzac, with incredible foresight of coming development, invented in his shortstory of the Chef d'Oeuvre inconnu (about which I once told you), and whom he has go down to destruction over an impossible task, through the discovery that there are actually no contours but rather many vibrating transitions, learning this, the old man stands up from the table in spite of Madame Bremond, who cer­tainly did not favor such irregularities, and, voiceless with excitement, keeps pointing his finger distinctly toward himself and showing himself, himself, himself, painful as that may have been.

It was not Zola who understood what the point was; Balzac had sensed long ahead that, in painting, something so tremendous can suddenly present itself, which no one can handle. But the next day he nevertheless began again with his struggle for mastery; by six o'clock every morning he got up, went through the city to his studio and stayed there until ten; then he came back by the same way to eat, ate and was on his way again, often half an hour beyond his studio, "sur Ie motif" in a valley before which the mountain of Sainte Victoire with all its thousands of tasks rose up indescrib­ably.

Paul Cézanne - Mont Sainte-Victoire (c. 1902–6)

There he would sit then for hours, occupied with finding and taking in plans (of which, remarkably enough, he keeps speaking in exactly the same words as Rodin). He often reminds one of Rodin anyway in his expressions. As when he com­plains about how much his old city is being destroyed and disfigured. Only that where Rodin's great, self-confident equilibrium leads to an objective statement, fury overcomes this sick, solitary old man. Evenings on the way home he gets angry at some change, arrives in a rage and, when he notices how much the anger is ex­hausting him, promises himself : I will stay at home; work, nothing but work.

From such alterations for the worse in little Aix he then deduces in horror how things must be going elsewhere. Once when present conditions were under dis­cussion, industry and the like, he broke out "with terrible eyes": "ça va mal... C'est effrayant, la vie !"

Outside, something vaguely terrifying in process of growth; a little closer, in­difference and scorn, and then suddenly this old man in his work, who no longer paints his nudes from anything but old drawings he made forty years ago in Paris, knowing that Aix would allow him no model. "At my age," he said, "I could get at best a fifty-year-old, and I know that noteven such a person is to be found in Aix." So he paints from his old drawings. And lays his apples down on bedspreads Madame Bremond certainly misses one day, and puts his wine bottles among them whatever he happens to find. And (like van Gogh) makes his "saints" out of things like that; and compels them, compels them to be beautiful, to mean the whole, world and all happiness and all glory, and doesn't know whether he has bought them to doing that for him. And sits in the garden like an old dog, the dog of this work which calls him again and beats him and lets him go hungry.

And yet with it all clings to this incomprehensible master, who only on Sunday lets him re­turn to God, as to his first owner, for awhile. And outside people are saying: "Ce­zanne", and gentlemen in Paris are writing his name with emphasis and proud at being well informed.

I wanted to tell you all this; it is related to so much about us and to ourselves in a hundred places. Outside it is raining copiously, as usual. Farewell ... tomorrow I will speak again of myself. But I have done so today too."