A photograph of 1894 shows Paul Cezanne in his Paris studio at work on a small canvas on the easel, The Apotheosis of Delacroix (Fig. 1). The title is based on Cezanne's own words in a letter of May 12, 1904, to Emile Bernard from Aix-en-Provence. In it the old painter declares his enduring admiration for Eugene Delacroix, but, he adds, not without a touch of melancholy, "I don't know whether my precarious health will ever enable me to realize my dream of creating his apotheosis." (1) Cezanne's dream of creating a painting in homage to Delacroix spans his life. Some of the figures in the unfinished canvas took early form in drawings on the pages of a sketchbook dated from the 1860s (2)--a worshiping man on his knees (Fig. 2) and a man holding a walking stick, believed to be Cezanne's self-portrait--when he was also making studies and copies after Delacroix's paintings and executed some pencil portraits of Delacroix after a photograph by Eugene Durieu (Fig. 3). (3) These isolated studies first coalesce into a coherent scene representing apotheosis in a water-color, dated from the early 1880s (Fig. 4), (4) followed by the final oil sketch, elaborated, most probably, in the early 1890s (Fig. 5). (5) Despite such persistence, the project remained unfinished. Today, Cezanne's Apotheosis hangs, still incomplete and sketchlike, in the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence.
In a sun-filled landscape under an intensely blue sky, a group of figures, arranged in a half circle, stand or kneel, hands joined in prayer, as they gaze up adoringly toward the nude Delacroix lounging on clouds and attended by angels, one of whom carries his brushes and palette heavenward. Bernard identified some of the figures. (6) On the left, under a tree, is the collector Victor Chocquet, in a dark frock coat, his overturned top hat on the ground behind him. Next to him is an unidentified bareheaded man in a painter's smock. Cezanne appears in three-quarter view from the back, with his painter's gear, walking stick, and pointed straw hat, accompanied by a prancing dog (the dog named Black in Cezanne's letters? (7)). To his right stands Claude Monet, also seen from behind, in three-quarter length, and wearing a pointed straw hat. In the right background, another painter again in pointed hat, said to be Camille Pissarro, stands by his easel shaded by a large umbrella (in the watercolor, the figure identified as Monet is shown sketching under Pissarro's umbrella).
Cezanne's small painting raises tantalizing questions. To begin with, it is intriguing that Cezanne failed to complete a project that he obviously held so dear to his heart. Another oddity is his choice of allegory, a genre unusual in his oeuvre, with one exception: his L'eternel feminin (Fig. 6). Between this latter work and the Apotheosis there are, in fact, several similarities: both paintings feature a semicircle of admirers in the foreground transfixed by an apparitional figure beyond, and both include a painter at his easel at the far right. But whereas L'eternel feminin suggests no precise location for the scene, or at best a vaguely exterior setting, the Apotheosis takes place in a landscape pointedly and unmistakably identified as Provencal by its hallmark attributes, pine trees and a sunny blue sky. (8) The scene's Provencal location is also underscored by the artists' pointed straw hats, typical southern headgear, which Cezanne himself often wore. (9) The cohort of admiring artists seems a curious choice, too. For these are landscape painters, painters of outdoor nature, hardly a genre we associate with Delacroix, a man with a quintessentially urban, Parisian persona and an output exemplifying the grand, historical genres.
This essay attempts to understand Cezanne's unusual representational choices, and their intended meaning, in his Apotheosis of Delacroix, by surveying the cultural and artistic context of the last decades of the nineteenth century in France and its southernmost province, Provence. It leads to Cezanne's painted allegory via several ostensibly tenuously connected paths: Delacroix's reputation in the 1880s and 1890s (10) and its symbolic pertinence in the context of republican cultural politics: the renewed discourse, critical and philosophical, revolving around Delacroix's color practice and its role as a metaphor for certain perceptual shifts during those years, as partitioning approaches to politics and culture gradually gave way to an impulse toward reciprocity, relativity, and unity; and what all this might mean for Cezanne. In a final section, I speculate about Cezanne's inability to complete a work that clearly obsessed him--indeed, how else can we account for the protracted (over twenty years) and ultimately fruitless gestation of the picture?
Delacroix and the Republic of Great Men
Cezanne's drawings later incorporated in his tribute to Delacroix were done in the immediate aftermath of the painter's death in 1863. In Febuary 1864, an auction sale of his studio and, in August, a large exhibition of his work mounted by the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts (of which Delacroix had been a member) on the premises of the Galerie Martinet, at 20 Boulevard des Italiens, (11) sanctioned Delacroix's reputation, once and for all, as not only the talismanic leader of the younger avant-garde (attested by Henri Fantin-Latour's famous Hommage a Delacroix of 1864) but also, more universally, as the "anointed first painter of his era," (12) an "immortal genius," (13) and a "gloire nationale," (14) a realm of the nation's collective memory: "France loses in him the most extraordinary and most powerful of its painters; one of these men whose oeuvre sums up the aspirations and the spirit of the century....," wrote Delacroix's friend the critic Paul de Saint-Victor. (15) And art critic Victor Fournel stated that France had been decapitated, no less. (16)
This was not the end of Delacroix's earthly glory, however. The painter's public image rebounded with renewed relevance from the 1880s onward, in the context of the Third Republic's programmatic cult of great men as both edifying models for civilian emulation and synechdochic cues to the glorious body of the nation. The practice was pursued with special urgency in the 1880s, the decade of the Republic of the Opportunists, when political turmoil appeared to threaten the very foundations of republicanism. As public discontent over foreign policy and consecutive scandals racked public life, discrediting the moderate Ferry ministry (which fell in March 1885), radical oppositional movements flared. The greatest danger was Boulangism, the subversive movement led by General Georges Boulanger, the minister of war in 1886, whose nationalist agenda appealed to a wide variety of republican discontents. In the latter part of the 1880s, political chaos reigned. Although Boulanger was ultimately defeated in the elections of September 23, 1889, and committed suicide in 1891, his followers kept the movement alive well into the mid-1890s (when the limelight was captured by the Dreyfus affair). (17)
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In the face of such adversity, republicans sought political reinforcement in the nation's cultural heritage, its great men and women in the arts, letters, and sciences, extolled as exemplars of France's glory, historical longevity, and indestructible national cohesion. Addressed to individuals as signifying a whole, as Nicholas Green writes, (18) and to that whole as harmoniously constituted of individuals, the cult of exceptional citizens reenacted the republican ideal of multiplicity in unity, of indivisible yet diverse oneness. Setting to rest divisive political and aesthetic controversies, the republican regime extended its cultural policies with all-inclusive equanimity to artists, writers, musicians, and scientists from all stylistic and ideological persuasions as equally part of the nation's multifaceted creative impulse. (19) State-sponsored exhibitions, including full-scale retrospectives staged at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the sanctum of artistic officialdom, honored once artistically and politically controversial artists, such as Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and Jean-Francois Millet. (20) Hundreds of busts and monuments arose throughout the squares and parks of Paris, its suburbs, and the provinces. (21) With memorials to Theodore de Banville (1892), Frederic Chopin (1896), Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1897), and George Sand (1904), among others, the Luxembourg Garden especially took on the look of a pastoral pantheon, the Elysian fields of France's greats in the arts and letters.
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A signal event epitomized such gestures: the restoration, in 1885, of the Pantheon, the church dedicated to Sainte Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, to its revolutionary function as the honorific burial site of France's great men. An occurrence of enormous national and symbolic significance triggered this reversal. On May 22, 1885, Victor Hugo, France's most celebrated poet and a towering political figure, died at the age of eighty-three. (22) The huge loss was felt keenly and profoundly by all. It bonded together warring factions and reawakened a sense of communal national belonging among Frenchmen. "[T]he whole of France experienced a brotherly anxiety, as if all the parties at the same time felt that before a national glory, there was only one emotion: the most respectful grief," wrote one author. (23) President Jules Grevy decreed that Hugo would receive a state funeral and be buried in the Pantheon. After lying in state under the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, where the whole of Paris, indeed, of France, flocked in a last farewell, the body of the poet was carried in great pomp to its final resting place at the Pantheon. The word "apotheosis" was on everyone's lips:
The week belongs to Victor Hugo. The splendor of his funeral has not only been a marvelous spectacle; it is a...