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Seeing Cezanne Author(s): Richard Shiff Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp.

Seeing Cezanne Author(s): Richard Shiff Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 769-808 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342954

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Seeing Cezanne

Richard Shiff

After a period of relative obscurity, around 1890 Cezanne's art began to receive critical attention from an ever expanding group of commentators-the artist's old impressionist companions, his new sym- bolist admirers, and a diverse body of critics and journalists. This mass of early Cezanne criticism is by no means univocal and includes statements on the artist and his art which are in radical opposition to one another. Yet there seems to be a surprising degree of conformity in the early

Cezanne's paintings. In other words,

descriptions of the appearance of

numerous commentators saw the same group of stylistic characteristics as significant, but their interpretations of the meaning or intention be- hind these definable stylistic elements diverged widely. In general, nearly all the early commentary can be categorized as describing Cezanne's art as if it were the product of either impressionist or sym- bolist concerns. I propose to demonstrate that, contrary to the prevailing

twentieth-century interpretation,1 the impressionist view of Cezanne's art more nearly corresponds to his own intentions as he revealed them

through both his stylistic choices and his theoretical pronouncements

A grant from the National Endowment

for the Humanities enabled me to complete

preparatory work for this essay during the summer of 1975. 1. Most modern art historical accounts have grouped

Cezanne among the so-called

postimpressionists, a category originally employed by Roger Fry to refer to all French artists whose styles developed in reaction to or as a refinement of impressionism. The major postimpressionists other than Cezanne-Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh-have been closely identified with symbolist concerns; and Cezanne himself is generally described by twentieth-century historians as exhibiting many aspects of the symbolist aesthetic, espe- cially the concern for discovering an ideally expressive "form" or "structure."



770 Richard Shiff

Seeing Cezanne

and that, therefore,


be re-

But I would also argue that neither the symbolist nor the

his significance

for his own time should

impressionist view of Cezanne's art need be accepted as the one right

any art

historical argument which purports to demonstrate that one and only one view of an artist or work of art can be correctly applied. For differ-

ent viewers, different interpretations may be "correct"or most meaning- ful, even if at variance with the artist's intended effect. When the historian chooses to study a particular work of art, he does so either because its contemporary audience considered the work significant or because he himself considers it significant. Often both

justifications for study and evaluation coincide, as they do in the case of

paintings were admired in his lifetime and they

are admired now. Recent evaluations of Cezanne's art, however, are not

view today. Extending

that thesis,

I would call into question

Cezanne's works-his

identical to those rendered by his contemporaries.

to have settled upon a more monolithic approach to the appraisal of the artist's motivation and expressive intentions, but we have even given

meanings to some observed visual qualities (such as "flatness") which the

artist's contemporaries

sider the significance of the artist's oeuvre in relation to its own cultural

milieu, he must be careful to evaluate all aspects of that art as it was seen or experienced within its own environment. For this reason I have taken special care to define categories such as "impressionist" and "symbolist"

by means of concepts considered

century and to employ abstract or descriptive words such as "true," "sincere," "primitive," "bright," or "awkward" as they were then em-

ployed. I have also sought to distinguish

pressionists," for example, Academic or Salon impressionists as opposed

to the more familiar independent

paintings in terms of stylistic


elements actually recognized as significant at the time of the production

of the paintings and have attempted to make only those stylistic compari-

sons which


lated, while it does

Cezanne to Picasso, even though

Not only do we seem

never perceived. If the historian wishes to con-

valid in France in the late nineteenth

among types of "im-



in dis-

matters of style, I have analyzed

would have been meaningful to


even though

then. Hence, Cezanne may be

no direct relationship is postu-

of this study to compare

not serve the purposes

Picasso admired his work.

To say that Cezanne's contemporaries

interpreted his art in oppos-

Richard Shiff is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A related article, "The End of Impression- ism: A Study of Theories of Artistic Expression," will appear later this year.

Critical Inquiry



ing manners is to say that various stylistic elements were set into differ-

ent contexts or taken to communicate

happen? Obviously, the divergent aims and expectations which impressionist and symbolist observers brought to bear on Cezanne's art may account for much of the confusion. The impressionist artist's primary concern was to suggest or make reference to (although not, in a strict sense, to depict) a spontaneous impression produced in contact with nature. This "impression," which represented "truth," was identified with the direct interaction of the sense organs (or, alternatively, the perceiving con-

sciousness) and the external environment. Both antiestablishment figures, like Monet and Pissarro, and successful Salon artists, like Detaille

were associated with the impressionist or naturalist


often opposed impressionism; they considered it a materialistic move- ment devoted to external appearances and thereby lacking intense emo- tion and universal meaning. The symbolists sought their "truth" through the synthetic "idea," the conceptual abstraction resulting from an emo- tional and intellectual response to external reality. They were "sym- bolist" not in the sense of using fixed, conventional symbols or allegorical

subjects but in terms of using a process of discovering that ideational or "symbolic" content which transcends the world of transient impressions. The painters Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Maurice Denis and the critics Felix Feneon and Albert Aurier were regarded as symbolists. While different groups of viewers may have sought different values in Cezanne's art, the artist's manner of painting and personality both contributed to the ambiguity of his work. Until the last decade of his life he seldom exhibited, and even then his paintings seemed unfinished. He was generally regarded as an "incomplete" artist and often as a "primitive," one whose art was in some way simple or rudimentary, devoid of the refinements and complexities of his materialistic, industri- alized (and, some commentators added, atheistic) society.2 He was seen

different meanings. How did this

and Bastien-Lepage,

On the whole a somewhat younger group, the symbolists,

2. For Cezanne as "incomplete," see, e.g., Thadee

Natanson, "Paul Cezanne," Revue

blanche 9 (1 December

1895), in La Vie artistique(Paris, 1900), p.

Lecomte, L'Art impressionniste(Paris, 1892),

(September 1907), in Theories, 1890-1910: Du symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre

classique, 2d ed. (Paris,

artist was very broad. Included

Orient, artists of the earlier stages of the development of various Western styles (such as

the Archaic Greeks and the pre-Raphaelite

artists, and those of contemporary

evaluation of modern Western European society, see, e.g., Victor de Laprade, Le Sentiment

de la naturechezles modernes, 2d

ed. (Paris, 1870), pp. 483-88;

une nouvelle methode de critique" (1892), "Le Symbolisme en peinture: Paul Gauguin" (9

1895): 497; and Gustave Geffroy, "Paul Cezanne" (16 November

218. For Cezanne as "primitive," see, e.g., Georges

pp. 30-31;

and Maurice Denis,


1912), p. 246. The late nineteenth-century

notion of the "primitive"

in the category of primitives were artists of the ancient

Italians), provincial or uneducated



societies. With regard to the negative

and Albert Aurier, "Essai sur

772 Richard Shiff

Seeing Cezanne

as an isolated man who lived apart from other painters and found human relationship and communication difficult. Yet for some symbolists it was this alienation and mystery which


made Cezanne's art so attractive. As early as 1891, Feneon

appropriate to refer to "the Cezanne tradition," a designation which indicates the influence of the legendary account of the artist pro- mulgated by Gauguin and his associates.3 Gauguin had painted landscapes with the reclusive artist during the summer of 1881, was impressed by his odd style, both personal and pictorial, and in a letter to Emile Schuffenecker of 14 January 1885 described Cezanne as embody- ing the mysticism of the Orient.4 Such a characterization held special meaning for those like Gauguin who had come more and more to search for an ultimate truth in the experience of the mystical, the transcenden-

tal, the intensely real. For the symbolist painter or writer, primitives lived in harmony with the real world; they had an intuitive, mythic under-

standing of their environment.

viewed the world through false and short-sighted analytic reason and thus saw only immediate causes and effects, not eternal universal princi-

ples. They were Christians who could not see the truth of Buddhism; they were socially indoctrinated Parisians who could not see the purer structure of human society in provincial Brittany; they were refined painters of nature who could not see the expressive power of a flat area of color surrounded by broad outline. For Gauguin and the symbolists,

Cezanne, living in isolation in his seemingly unsophisticated native Pro- vence, qualified as an enlightened contemporary, an inspiring force, a primitive artist. Maurice Denis, one of the artists listed by Feneon as an adherent of the "Cezanne tradition," later made several associations which came to

have much more significance for younger

guin's reference to Cezanne's "Oriental" qualities. Denis, a more skillful theorist than painter, is today best known for having written in 1890 that

the most expressive aspect of a work of art is not its subject but its abstract formal design.5 Like many nineteenth-century students of art theory, Denis believed that artistic communication depends on a primary emotional response to elemental sensual stimuli-lines, colors, perhaps simple shapes. Such an immediate emotional response precedes any


Most modern Europeans, in contrast,


than did Gau-

February 1891), and "Les Isoles: Vincent van Gogh" (January 1890), in Oeuvres posthumes (Paris, 1893), pp. 202, 216, 262-63.

3. Felix Feneon, "Paul Gauguin" (23 May 1891), in Oeuvres plus que compltes, ed. Joan

Halperin, 2 vols. (Geneva, 1970), 1:192. 4. Lettresde Gauguin d safemme et d ses amis, ed. Maurice Malingue (Paris, 1946), p. 45.

Felix Feneon, Andre Mellerio, and Emile Bernard also associated Cezanne's style with mysticism.

5. Denis, "Definition du neo-traditionnisme"

(August 1890), in Theories, pp. 1-13.

Critical Inquiry



recognition of an identifiable natural form. The elements of vision be-

come as important as the images finally built out of them. The implica- tion of this general theory-in some of its forms called "empathy" theory, in others, the theory of "expression"-is that the modern artist must turn away from overly illusionistic systems of depiction, systems developed to create the image of an object-filled natural world but which lack any emphasis on the abstract structure or the expressive elements of that world. In the past, according to Denis, the ancient Greeks had produced an art which was founded in nature and yet translated natural appearances by means of expressive visual elements. Nicolas Poussin, as a modem follower of the Greek classical tradition, also produced an expressive art. His compositions seemed to lend themselves to an abstract formal reading. His landscapes and figures were not only nature but geometry. As far as Denis was concerned, then, Poussin was a successful artist and could be used as the standard to whom others could be com-


Denis compared Gauguin to Poussin, calling the former "a kind of Poussin without classical culture" who studied primitive forms instead of those of classical antiquity.7 Like Poussin, Gauguin had an expressive "style" and, as a symbolist, the style was based on "the correspondence between [abstract] forms and emotions." Moreover, it followed for Denis that, as a symbolist, Gauguin's masters were the (European) primitives, the Japanese, and, above all, Cezanne.8 Thus, it was logical for Denis, having drawn Poussin and Gauguin together, to add Cezanne to com-

plete the formulation. As Poussin sought true artistic

through classical antiquity, and Gauguin through the primitive, Cezanne, Denis asserted, sought it through nature-Cezanne is "the Poussin of

impressionism" and "the Poussin of the still life and landscape." Like Poussin and Gauguin, like the classical and the primitive, Cezanne achieved "the just equilibrium between [the sensation of] nature and [emotionally expressive] style."9 But if Cezanne was a reincarnation of Poussin, he was not complete; he lacked the Academic master's refinement. Denis recognized that


Poussinesque"-it was awkward.10 In his theoretical writings Denis seems

Cezanne's monumental "Large Bathers" (fig. 1) was


to have given his notion of distortion or awkwardness, the

nearly as much significance as his notion of "style." Cezanne, who had

"style, that


"gaucherie," a

is, [formal] order through synthesis," also had


7. Denis, "L'Influence de Paul Gauguin" (October 1903), in Thories, p. 166.

8. Denis, "Les Arts a Rome ou la methode classique" (1898), in Theories, pp. 50, 61, here


"De la gaucherie des primitifs" (July 1904), in Theories, p.


and elsewhere,



my translation.


"Cezanne," and "De Gauguin, 1905), in Theories, pp. 252, 197; cf.

de Whistler,

also p. 239.

et de l'exces des theories"

10. Denis, "De Gauguin et de van Gogh au classicism" (May 1909), in Theories,p. 255.






?BR"i::Cii: aerasn: ??::;?::-??:? a?F ::::::: . f L FIG. 1.-Paul Cezanne, Large Bathers (c. 1902-06).
FIG. 1.-Paul
Cezanne, Large Bathers (c. 1902-06).
Wyatt, staff photographer.

Philadelphia Museum

Critical Inquiry



result, according to Denis, of his originality and sincerity. Because the artist struggled so directly with the expression of his sensation of nature, because he refused to follow conventional formulations or a pre- conceived notion of the picturesque, his art was awkward like that of a primitive.11 This awkwardness, Denis argued, was characteristic of those modem artists who had direct contact with nature, but, he added, we should not admire it for its own sake; it was simply a by-product of a modern sincere art and difficult to avoid.12 Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and their associates-among them

Vincent van Gogh, Emile Bernard, and Joris Karl Huysmans-have

an image of Cezanne as a founding

perhaps even a classicist, albeit an awkward one. Where is the evidence of this gaucherie? What specifically were these early viewers seeing in Cezanne's art? Van Gogh, in a moment of simplicity, spoke of "how clumsy [Cezanne's] touch in certain studies is," then attributed the awk- wardness to working outdoors "when the mistral was blowing."13 Huys- mans, like Denis, mentioned the distorted linear contours of the artist's bathers.14 Both these elements-the "touch" or brushstroke ('facture") and the linear outlining-are clearly visible to us today in the Tannahill "Bathers," a characteristic work which probably dates from the early 1880s (fig. 2). The "awkwardness" of this small study is revealed when the painting is compared to a refined large-scale work produced about the same time, Bouguereau's "Bathers" of 1884 (fig. 3). The two paint- ings are, of course, quite different in kind-one is a small study, possibly unfinished and not intended for exhibition, the other a major work by an artist who exhibited regularly. The more finished work, however, represents a norm, for Bouguereau was frequently classified by his con- temporaries as an Academic naturalist, a master of the painter's craft and of imitating natural effects. He was, in addition, regarded as an artist whose subject matter (like Cezanne's) often appeared opaque and devoid of poetic content.15 If Cezanne's art seemed crude or distorted, it seemed so in comparison with the art of Bouguereau, an accepted stan- dard of naturalistic refinement.16


spirit of symbolism, a primitive, and

11. Denis, "Cezanne," pp. 239, 243, 246.

12. Denis,

"La Reaction nationaliste" (15 May 1905), and "Cezanne" in Theories, pp.

191, 247.

13. Van Gogh to Bernard, June

1888, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, ed.

V. W. van Gogh, 3 vols. (New York, 1958), 3:499.


10:39; Denis, "Cezanne," p. 248.

14. Joris

Huysmans, Certains (1889), in Oeuvres completes, 18 vols. (Paris, 1929),

15. See, e.g.,

F. Grindelle, "Une Visite au salon," La Critiquephilosophique(24 June

1882), p. 330.

16. The art of Bastien-Lepage (who died in 1884) was also regarded as a standard for

naturalistic painting.

this, for many viewers, implied a more subjective naturalism than that found in Bouguereau. Meissonier, too, represented for the late nineteenth-century viewer an objec-

decidedly "impressionist," and

His style, however,

was considered

776 Richard Shiff

Seeing Cezanne

7 7 6 Richard S h i f f S e e i n g Cezanne

FIG. 2.-Paul

Cezanne, Bathers (c. 1883). Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of

Arts, bequest of Robert H. Tannahill.

Thefacture, or brushwork, of Cezanne's "Bathers" is characterized by clearly visible individual parallel strokes. These strokes may at times

suggest the notation of

elements of a volumetric form or even


individual leaves of a tree, but most often the strokes appear as an

abstraction, a loosely structured pattern that

rial surface by means of color. The strokes seem hastily applied and give the image a sketchy, unfinished quality. The color pattern seems abrupt; no transitional tones mediate the shifts from light green to dark green, from green to ochre, or from yellow-green to pale blue. In contrast, Bouguereau's brushstrokes and colors are a study in subtlety. The visibil- ity of the individual stroke is to a great extent suppressed, and a tradi- tional system of chiaroscuro modeling is employed-that is, the passage

gives definition to the picto-

tive naturalism. A small minority of

works of Manet and Monet represented

ered their art highly personalized and subjective.

critics argued that the radical impressionism of the late

a standard for objective vision, but most consid-

.J J 4w .; NI .: . `,! yiTCias

FIG. 3.-William stitute of Chicago.



The Bathers (1884). Courtesy of the Art In-

778 Richard Shiff

Seeing Cezanne

from light to dark or from one color to another is

tones eliminate any abrupt shifts in value or hue. Cezanne's "Bathers"

also presents the multiple sketchy contour lines which Denis and others

found so problematic.17 The

not well


tapered to a crippling degree. to impinge upon the physical

The background foliage seems, in places,

its neck is long and thick, its head is small, and its legs are


drawn and anatomy is is



figures seem crudely

to the







figures as it but


pictorial character as illusionistic volumetric forms.

that Cezanne's art, in comparison, was seen

as awkward, full of gaucherie. The artists and critics who observed this awkward art, those few who

in the

praised him. In fact, during this period it was common for that which was crude, awkward, or distorted to be accepted as somehow more sin- cerely expressive than that which was refined. We know that Denis

linked Cezanne's gaucherie to his originality and sincerity. Earlier, in


We should not wonder then

integrity of the foreground

overlaps their contours. Bouguereau's

have a convincing

bathers may be vapid,

1880s and

1890s wrote at length

about Cezanne,


1895, Gustave Geffroy reviewed the artist's first one-man exhibition

explained what he called "the awkwardness, the lack of perspective and balance, and the unfinished aspect" as signs of a "scrupulous observer, like a primitive, deeply concerned with truth."18A still earlier statement



1883 the

had written, in his major

theoretical work "Expression in the Fine Arts," that "a certain awkward-

ness [gaucherie], the guarantee of sincerity, may be preferable to an overly great facility of execution."19



for Geffroy's critical position: in


poet Armand






was frequently

applied to specific works of art in Salon reviews. Thus, the figural style of

Puvis de Chavannes (fig. 4) was repeatedly seen as crude and distorted yet superior to the refinement of an artist like Bouguereau. Puvis was

described in the 1880s as Cezanne was in the 1890s and later-as a source for symbolism, as a primitive, as sincere and unconventional, and

abstraction.20 Many critics extended their initial



awkwardness by choosing to interpret it as

as a master of expressive

of unintentional

"distortion" ("deformation"). Thus,

in 1895 and 1904 Roger

Marx asserted that Puvis' distorted forms were intentionally expressive

17. Denis, "Cezanne," pp. 248-49.

18. Geffroy,

"Paul Cezanne,"





that others


Cezanne's paintings were, on the contrary, "admirably balanced and finished"; the artist

appeared to be both "traditional" and "primitive."

19. Rene Francois Armand Sully-Prudhomme, "L'Expression dans les beaux-arts"

(1883), in Oeuvresde Sully-Prudhomme, Prose, 7 vols. (Paris, 1898), 5:22.

"Le Salon de 1887," Revue des deux mondes 81 (1


20. See, e.g., Georges Lafenestre,

1887): 607-9.

I FIG. 4.-Puvis
FIG. 4.-Puvis

de Chavannes, Pleasant Land (1882). Yale Universit

780 Richard Shiff

Seeing Cezanne

and intellectually profound, not the product of ignorance

calculation. For Marx, Cezanne,

the linear form of his figures for expressive purposes.21

but of mature

like Puvis, "deliberately exaggerates"

Cezanne's paintings were also characterized as distorted or awkward

they seemed flat. Marx

linked Cezanne to symbolism and primitivism not only because of his linear distortion but also because of his broad, flat application of uni-


lack of

preciated the harmonies produced by the "very simple, flat tones" but

the various levels of

depth in a landscape.23 Had Lecomte been viewing the Tannahill "Bathers," he would have issued just this complaint, for the lower land-

scape area seems to consist of four horizontal

yellow-orange (or ochre), blue-green, yellow-orange, and green-which represent a stream (blue-green), its sandy banks (yellow-orange), and a meadow beyond (green), and the colors themselves vary little in intensity

as they conventionally would if indicating spatial recession. In addition,

the horizontal

again offering no hint of relative spatial displacement. It is not surpris- ing then that, like other observers of Cezanne's style, Denis described the

artist's color as lacking value gradation and as giving a surface effect comparable to that of the flat color in works by Gauguin and Bernard.24

from the standards of


primitivism. In one of his most evasive formulations he connected both

the awkward rendering of objects and the lack of conventional spatial

perspective to the mental processes of the primitive. "The Primitive," Denis wrote in 1904, "knows objects with his intellect as so many entities

distinct from himself; he ranks them always in the same

of his consciousness."

immediate conscious experience is a world of only one plane, a flat world; the true image of reality, what Denis and others called the "idea," is two-dimensional, flat. The primitive, according to Denis, does not concern himself with spatial illusion; he "prefers reality [the conceptual idea] to the appearance of reality [the perceptual effect]."25 Denis' argument may seem obscure, but the association of flatness

In other words, Denis argued that the world of

because they appeared to lack illusionistic


formly bright pigment.22 Similarly, Georges

1899, emphasized



was disturbed by the artist's failure to



in an essay Lecomte



bands of color-pale

bands are of nearly equal width and of similarfacture,

Characteristically, Denis saw this deviation


as related





plane, the plane

21. Roger Marx, "Les Salons de 1895," Gazettedes beaux-arts13 (May 1895): 359;


Salon d'Automne," Gazettedes beaux-arts32 (December

22. Marx, "Le Salon d'Automne," pp. 462-64.

issue of whether or not Cezanne's color is modeled or nuanced.

1904): 462-64.

Marx is somewhat inconsistent on the

23. Georges Lecomte, "Paul Cezanne," Revue d'art 1 (9 December 1899): 86.

24. Denis, "Cezanne," pp. 250-52.

Like Marx, Denis is ambivalent on the question of

whether or not Cezanne creates volumetric form (see p. 249).

25. Denis, "De la gaucherie des primitifs," pp. 170, 171.

Critical Inquiry



with conceptualization is a familiar one. We think of the objective exter-

nal world (whether a projection of our minds or an independent reality) as three-dimensional, volumetric. We think of that which is two- dimensional or flat as an abstraction, an immaterial conceptualization of

a material substance. In the late nineteenth century Charles Blanc, a respected theorist of the French art establishment and neither a sym- bolist nor an impressionist, spoke of flat, unmodeled color as "symbolic," the color of intellectualized convention, not of nature.26 There is another sense, not so accessible to us today, in which

Cezanne's paintings were logically seen as flat: they were

Atmospheric flatness was a notion very seriously considered by Cezanne's


ing fields of color suggesting an even, ubiquitous light, they could be seen as atmospheric; and to the extent that these paintings could be seen as lacking chiaroscuro modeling, they could be seen as flat.27 Among many naturalists of Cezanne's generation it was customary to produce a uniform vibrating light through the use of contrasting relatively intense hues and by suppressing value gradation, or chiaroscuro. Since a lack of chiaroscuro implied a lack of depth, the atmospheric vibrating field of

color was, by its very nature, to be interpreted as flat-flatness, if pro-


a uniformity of value but not necessarily of hue, was

To the extent that his paintings could be seen as vibrat-



atmospheric. An alternative manner

flatness can be

seen in the Tannahill "Bathers"; as in Cezanne's other mature works, the

with similar color


intensity and facture.28 This technique produces a unification of the painted surface or a unity of apparent spatial plane, that is, flatness. This

kind of unification was traditionally associated with the effect of atmo-

spheric light and was