Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Long has the fate of mankind been tied to apples. They got Adam and Eve banished from Paradise. With the apple, Johnny Appleseed tamed the New World. And then, in the late 19th century, Paul Cézanne declared he would paint the otherwise unremarkable fruit and “astonish Paris with an apple.”
Cézanne did just that. His paintings of apples confused critics and art enthusiasts alike. People were astonished that apples could look so ugly, and be so poorly painted. Some thought Cézanne’s still lifes were actually a joke, or an insult. It is difficult, looking at Cézanne’s paintings today, to feel the full force of that outrage. But there were certain artistic standards in the late 19th century. Painting that came out of the official Academy of Art (Écoles des Beaux-Arts) was expected to look a certain way. Brushstrokes, for instance, were supposed to be smoothed out and worked, more or less, into the finish of the painting. A glossy and well-varnished surface was expected. One look at the paintings currently on display at The Barnes Foundation’s Cézanne exhibit (The World Is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne) is enough to see that Cézanne was not an Academy painter. He was making a point of being rough and crude.
There is a helpful juxtaposition of paintings in the catalogue to the Barnes Foundation exhibit. Curator Benedict Leca presents a picture by Henri Fantin-Latour called Still Life with Vase of Hawthorn, Bowl of Cherries, Japanese Bowl, and Cup and Saucer (1872). Fantin-Latour was a successful and well-respected Academic painter in his time. His still life is skillfully done. His rendering of the Japanese bowl and the cup and saucer is, in particular, masterful in its photographic details. The reflections on the bowl are perfect. Turning to Cézanne’s 1873-77 painting, Apples and Cakes, the contrast really is incredible.