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'The Murder', by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)


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About the artwork

The French painter Paul Cézanne is best known for his monumental landscape paintings. "The Murder" is one of Cézanne's early paintings, an unusually dramatic piece which conveys the brutality of the act. The murderer is lifting his hand ready to give the final strike while his collaborator is using all the force of her heavy and rounded body to keep the victim down.

The body of the victim has almost disappeared, only its outline head and arms are distinct under the ferocious force of the two murderers. The murderers have no faces, but the victim's is contorted with pain.

Cézanne is not concerned with the identities of the murderers; they could be anybody. Cézanne presents the act as one of anonymous violence; their crime is given no explanation.

The threatening sky, the suggestion of a riverbank where the body will be thrown, and the desolate surrounding space all contribute to the menacing nature of the scene.

Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, the son of a hat maker. In 1848 his father moved into finance and founded a bank, but his wealth was at odds with the lives of the local rural community and he was never accepted by Aix society.

As a student in the Bourbon college Cézanne became a friend of the novelist Emile Zola (1840-1902). They established a lasting friendship which continued even when Zola moved to Paris in 1858.

In 1859 after a year of studying law in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne decided to abandon his studies. Cézanne's relationship with his father was problematic: they never really seemed to have any contact and the young Cézanne struggled for a year before his father allowed him to move to Paris in 1861. Cézanne visited the Parisian museums, the Salon (the official exhibition hosted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts) and studied the work of the Old Masters whom he much admired.

Cézanne also practised at the Academie Suisse, an informal establishment which enabled artists to draw from life models for a small fee. There he met the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Under his influence Cézanne turned away from painting figures to work in the open air, producing landscapes of the Aix-en-Provence countryside. Despite spending long periods of time in the capital, Cézanne was alienated by Parisian society. He soon moved back to his hometown where he remained for most of his life.

Cézanne is mostly known for his landscapes, especially those of the mountain Saint Victoire, which he painted many times, as well as for his series of paintings of bathers, which occupied him from 1875 until his death. Although he participated in the first (1874) and third (1877) Impressionist exhibitions, his work was never strictly Impressionistic and had more in common with that of Pissarro.

Cézanne is seen as a forerunner to the modern movement of Cubism. He advised his friend and painter Emile Bernard to "treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone", and this has often been used to emphasise the geometry of Cézanne's work and his links with Cubism. However Cézanne's elimination of details, the reliance on basic forms and the construction of his compositions as a harmony of colours place him closer to modern abstraction.

The painting

"The Murder" is an early painting and quite different to his later work. It was painted at a time when Cézanne was still under the influence of Old Masters such as Gericault and Velazquez. The early period of his work is often characterised as the romantic one. In "The Murder" the time is the present, even though the space remains ambiguous. The work is realistic mainly because of the choice of theme rather than the treatment of the paint.

Cézanne's choice of this brutal subject may have been inspired by Zola's novel "Thérèse Racquin" (published in 1867) in which the heroine murders her husband. The painting's similarity with illustrations in the popular press suggests that they too could have been a source of inspiration. The famous painter Gericault (1791-1824) made a number of drawings based on the mysterious murder of the magistrate Antoine-Bernardin Fauldés in 1817, a celebrated case of the period.

The three figures in "The Murder" form a triangle whose parallel sides are forces in opposing directions: the murderer is lifting his hand ready to give the final blow while his collaborator is using all her strength to keep the victim down. The body of the victim has almost disappeared under the force of the two murderers.

The sweeping movement of the male murderer, obvious in his jacket and legs, conveys the power of the moment. His hands and legs are elongated and distorted for the same effect. The handling of paint is heavy and in many parts rounded, for example in the arms of the collaborator, foretelling of the luminous volumes of Cézanne's more famous landscapes.

Cézanne repeated the theme of "The Murder" in a watercolour (now in a private collection) dated around 1874-75.The watercolour has the same composition, but the murderer's face is no longer hidden and the victim is raising her hand in supplication. In the watercolour the landscape is specific and resembles the views of L'Estaque, a small town in southern France, featured in many paintings by Cézanne.

The Walker bought "The Murder" in 1964 with the aid of the National Arts Collection Fund.