top of page

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Cézanne's paintings

Dernière mise à jour : 18 févr. 2021

Paul Cézanne ; Portrait de l'artiste au fond rose, 1875

("Self-Portrait with Rose Background")

Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to Clara Rilke

October 23, 1907

[Paris, 29 rue Cassette]

"For a moment, it seemed easier to talk about the Self-Portrait: it is earlier, apparently than the Hortense Fiquet in a Striped Skirt described just before; it does not run through the whole available palette, it appears to stay in the middle of it between orange, ocher, red lake and violet purple, and to go in the coat and hair to the depth of a moist violet brown that is set off by a wall in gray and a pale copper.

On closer inspection, however, one discovers in this picture, too, a subtle presence of light green and luscious blue that brings out the reddish tones and define the highlights. Meanwhile, the subject itself is perfectly comprehensible, and the words that feel so wretched talking about painterly details would only too gladly come into their own telling that is depicted, with which their proper realm begins, and describing what is there.

It is a man seen from the right in profile turned forty-five degrees to the front, gazing at us. His dark, dark hair is bunched together as the back of his head and stops above the ears in such a way hat the whole line of his cranium is exposed: it is drawn with eminent assurance, hard and yet round, from the temple downward in one piece, and its solidity is still apparent even in those spots where, absorbed into form and surface.

It becomes only the outermost of thousands of outlines. The powerful structure of this skull embossed from within is again visible in the ledge of the eyebrows from there down, however, the face hangs, the densely bearded chin thrust forward toward the bottom as though by a shoe tree: hangs as if every feature were suspended separately, in an amazing progression, and at the same time, there is that expression of gaping attentiveness that maintains in the eye, uninterrupted by lids, a constant, practical wakefulness.

And it is almost touching the way he confirms how great and incorruptible this practicality of his seeing really was by presenting himself, without remotely explaining his expression or condescending to it, with such gently objectivity, with the trust and the concern for simple facts of a dog who sees himself in the mirror and thinks: there's a another dog.

So long ... for now. Perhaps you can see him a little from all of this, the old master to whom one might well apply the words he himself used to describe Pissarro: humble and colossal. Today is the anniversary of his death..."


October 24, 1907

"I said gray yesterday, when describing the background of the Self-Portrait, a light copper overlaid whith a diagonal pattern in gray. I should have said: a strange metallic white, aluminum or some such, for gray, actual gray, is never found in Cézanne's pictures.

It did not stand up as a color to his immensely painterly eye: he got to the bottom of it, and found it there to be violet or blue or reddish or green. He is especially fond of seeing violet (a color that has never before been explored so fully and in so many variations) where we would expect only gray, and would be perfectly satisfied with it.

He does not give in, but rather draws out the violet that is as though turned under it, just as many evenings do, autumn evenings especially, which speak to the graying of the façades as violet so that it answers them in all the tones from a light, tentative blue to the heavy violet of the Finnish graffite.

Already, though I stood before it so often transfixed and unflinching, the superb color combinations of the woman in the red armchair are fading beyond recall as hopelessly as a number composed of many digits. And yet, I fixed it in my mind. Digit by digit. The knowledge that it exists has become a lift to my spirit that I still feel in my sleep; my very blood can describe it, but telling passes somewhere outside it and is not invited in.

Did I write you about it ?

Madame Cézanne dans un fauteuil rouge, Paul Cézanne (1877)

- A low, red, fuly upholstered chair has been placed in front of a earthy green wall in which there are occasional repeats of a cobalt-blue pattern (a cross with the center cut out); its puffy round back curves forward and down into armrests (closed off like the sleeve of a man who has lost an arm). The left-hand armrest and the tassle drenched with cinnabar that hangs from it no longer have the wall behind them, but rather a wide strip of baseboard in greenish blue, against which they strike a loud contrast.

Seated in this red armchair, a personality in itself, is a woman resting her hands in the lap of a dress with wide vertical strieps, most delicately rendered with discreet small patches of greenish yellow and yellowish green up to the edge of the blue-green jacket, which is held together in front by a blue silk tie shot with green reflections.

In the brightness of her face the proximity of all these colors is exploited for simple modeling; even the brown of her hair piled in curves above her temples and the flat brown in her eyes have to speak up against their surroundings. It is as though each spot had knowledge of every other.

So much do they collaborate; so much is there of adaptation and denial; so much does each concern itself in its own way with balance, and create it, as the whole picture ultimately hold reality in balance. For if one says it is a red armchair (and it is the first and most definitive red armchair in all of painting), it is only because it has within it a sum of color experience that, however it happens, bolsters its redness and confirms it.

To come to its most blatant expression, it is painted very heavily around the light face, so that a kind of waxy layer results. And yet the color does not overwhelm the object, which appears so perfectly translated into its painterly equivalent that its bourgeois reality, no matter how perfectly captured and factual, surrenders all heaviness for an ultimate existence in a picture.

Everything, as I already wrote you, has become a matter of colors among themselves. One is considerate of the other, maintains itself against it, reflects on itself... You see how difficult it becomes when one wants to get quite close to the facts..."


October 25, 1907

"I had wonder last night rather my attempt at describing the woman in the armchair was able to give you any sense of it ? I am not even confident of having captured the relationship between its values. Words seemed shut out more than ever, and yet, it must be possible to use them convincingly, if only one could look at such a picture the way one looks at nature - then it would have to be somehow fully expressible as a fact of existence."

* * *


PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page