Paul SÉRUSIER | Still-life: the artist's studio [Nature morte: l'atelier de l'artiste]

France 1863 – 1927

Still-life: the artist's studio
[Nature morte: l'atelier de l'artiste]
oil on canvas
canvas 60.0 (h) x 73.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Henriette Boutaric 1984
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

It was perhaps unfair of the critic Albert Aurier to malign Sérusier’s early work as ‘an almost slavish imitation of Gauguin’1, yet when looking at Still-life: the artist’s studio it seems this claim may be justified. The subject matter is almost identical to that of Gauguin, and the knife to the left of the composition rests in a strikingly similar position to Gauguin’s in his Still-life with fan c. 1889.

But Sérusier’s painting is not simply a copy. Both Gauguin and Sérusier were heavily influenced by the work of Cézanne (works Still-life with onions and Kitchen table), in whose art Sérusier found a tangible expression of his desire to imbue subjects from the everyday with a sense of the spiritual. Of Cézanne’s still-lifes with apples he said:

He is … the pure painter … The purpose, even the concept of the object represented, disappears before the charm of his coloured forms … Of an apple by Cézanne one says: How beautiful! One would not peel it; one would like to copy it. It is in that that the spiritual power of Cézanne consists.2

While Cezanne’s apples exemplified Sérusier’s concerns, Gauguin’s important colour lesson in the Bois d’Amour gave Sérusier a means to express them further (The talisman).

In Still-life: the artist’s studio Sérusier uses colour as an expression of emotion. The vibrant red of the table, a direct pictorial quotation from Gauguin’s Vision after the sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel) 18883, invigorates an otherwise neutral interior scene. Laid across this red plane the cobalt blue of the knife’s blade leads the eye straight out the window and across the roofs of Paris, which gleam with bright oranges and flecks of yellow. The scene is further invigorated by Sérusier’s odd juxtaposition of spatial planes: horizontals are created by the table, the window sill and a distant building, and then cut through by the diagonals of roofs and the folds of the cloth. The whole composition is balanced by the strong, black verticals of the chair, echoed in the window frame and the distant chimney-stacks.

After experimental paintings such as this, Aurier’s critical comment more fairly notes that Sérusier ‘did not wait long to free his own personality and his later works show a poetic symbolism … a beauty and masterly synthesis of lines and colours’.4

Emilie Owens

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Quoted in John Rewald, Post Impressionism from van Gogh to Gauguin, 2nd edn, New York: Museum of Modern Art 1962, p. 519.
  2. Quoted in Maurice Denis, ‘Cézanne’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in theory 1900–2000: an anthology of changing ideas, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2003, p. 42.
  3. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
  4. Quoted in Rewald, p. 519.