In his 1962 essay “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name,” Clement Greenberg condemned contemporary art criticism for its tendency to indulge in “a fatality of misinterpretation that was also a fatality of nonsense.” Although Greenberg’s point of departure was Harold Rosenberg’s famous but woolly essay on “action painting,” his larger target was the pretentious and irresponsible writing that, increasingly, was crowding out serious criticism and connoisseurship. As anyone who has leafed through the pages of contemporary art criticism knows, the situation is far worse today than it was in 1962. Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried, Svetlana Alpers and T. J. Clark: they and their imitators, epigones, and rivals should all be required to recite Greenberg’s essay every morning before breakfast.
Important alternatives to the hermetic, politicized jungle of contemporary academic criticism are harder and harder to come by, and this is one reason that John Rewald’s monumental catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Paul Cézanne must be greeted as a landmark event in the annals of twentieth-century art-historical scholarship. At a time when the very ideal of connoisseurship is held in contempt by many so-called scholars, Rewald’s quiet command of his subject, his painstaking and meticulous approach to his material, hearkens back to an earlier and more fruitful scholarly model. Thirty years in the making, this book—the magnum opus of a scholarly career studded with important books—is sober and thorough: grounded firmly in facts, patient observation, and, where appropriate, reasoned conjecture and inference.
Rewald, who died early in 1994, has long been acknowledged as the preeminent authority on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Beginning with his 1936 thesis for the Sorbonne on Cézanne and Zola, Rewald devoted himself to the art of Cézanne and his contemporaries and immediate precursors. He edited a volume of Cézanne’s correspondence in 1937, Pissarro’s letters to his son Lucien in 1944. His History of Impressionism (1946) and Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956) instantly established themselves as indispensable reference works for their subjects, supplemented later by the essays in Studies in Impressionism (1985) and Rewald’s biography of Cézanne, which appeared in 1986. His catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s watercolors was published in 1983.
The first attempt to produce an inventory of Cézanne’s work was made by Ambroise Vollard, Cézanne’s dealer, shortly after the painter’s death in 1906. The catalogue never materialized, though some of Vollard’s work doubtless appeared in his biography of Cézanne, which was published in 1914. Lionello Venturi, the great Italian scholar who was one of Rewald’s inspirations, undertook the task and published his two-volume catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints in 1936. Although itself an immense achievement, Venturi’s Cézanne, Son Art–Son Oeuvre suffered from various lacunae and false attributions. One of the first to call attention to the problems with Venturi’s catalogue was Rewald, who in a 1937 review expressed his admiration for Venturi’s accomplishment and detailed his misgivings, especially about the dating of certain works.
Rewald embarked on a new catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s work in 1964. Building on Venturi’s effort, he has added one hundred and ten items to the oeuvre, many of which Venturi himself had accepted before his death in 1960. The present catalogue, beautifully produced by Harry Abrams, is in two volumes. The first contains forty-odd color plates, introductory material by Rewald and his collaborators Jayne Warman and Walter Feilchenfeldt, who completed the catalogue and saw it through the press after Rewald’s death, and text for each of the 954 paintings now accepted as part of Cézanne’s oeuvre. The second contains black and white photographs of the paintings. At a minimum, the text for each entry includes the date and dimensions of the work, reference—where applicable—to its listing in Venturi’s and other catalogues, and a bibliography, exhibition history, and provenance. Many entries also feature mini-essays by Rewald. These scholarly gems deal variously with the subject of the painting, the evolution of Cézanne’s methods and technique, and pertinent biographical and cultural information. A good number of the entries are accompanied as well by black and white photographs: of the landscapes and people that Cézanne painted, of the artist and his family and friends, of memorabilia from Vollard’s archives and elsewhere.
In his fine introductory essay “On the History of this Book,” Walter Feilchenfeldt notes that Rewald often said that it would be foolish to consider a catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s work definitive: there were just too many uncertainties and problems with dating. And of course there was always the possibility that works hitherto lost might suddenly surface. Perhaps, then, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne is not absolutely definitive. But it remains a monument to the highest ideals of art-historical scholarship, a work of brilliant detective work, and a trove of information for anyone interested in Cézanne’s work and cultural milieu.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 8, on page 74
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