Vision and Distortion in Cézanne's 'Still Life with Plaster Cupid'

Explore the play of visual distortions in Paul Cézanne's 'Still Life with Plaster Cupid' (around 1894).

Still Life with Plaster Cupid Still Life with Plaster Cupid (Circa 1894) by Paul CézanneThe Courtauld Institute of Art

One of Cézanne’s most radical compositions, Still Life with Plaster Cupid (around 1894) challenges the view that still life is an unadventurous genre. 

Cézanne manipulates traditional perspective in this painting by distorting space, planar composition, and a lack of depth.

Still Life with Plaster Cupid Still Life with Plaster Cupid (Circa 1894) by Paul CézanneThe Courtauld Institute of Art

In this painting, Cézanne depicts a corner of his studio dominated by a plaster cast of a seventeenth-century Baroque Cupid.

In the foreground, the statue stands on a table strewn with half a dozen apples and several onions.

The floor behind the table reveals an uncertainty in the planar composition, as it appears to curve up behind the table.

Propped up against the wall is a painting, identified as Cézanne’s Peppermint Bottle from 1893.  Curiously, the painting appears as though it has poured its contents into the room.

The blue drapery depicted in the painting appears to cascade down from the canvas, blending itself with the hem of the fabric, which then sprawls over the studio table, blurring illusion and reality. 

Depictions of the real fruit on the studio table and the ones painted on the propped-up canvas become virtually indistinguishable, creating an ambiguous and paradoxical relationship.

This sprouting onion sits at an interesting point in the pictorial composition. It exists in the liminal space, where illusion and reality are blurred, acting as a transition between these two spaces.

The stem appears almost as if it has been painted on the propped-up canvas. 

While Cézanne was known to contour as a way of highlighting where one form ended and another began, he provides no precise contouring around the onion.

The uncertainty of the space is further enhanced by this subtle red line between the onion and its green stem, which perfectly aligns with the bottom of the propped-up canvas.

The use of infrared technology revealed that Cézanne carefully considered this area and reworked it quite a few times. Eventually, he consciously chose to blur this transitory space.

In the top right-hand corner, there is another painting within the painting, in this case of a plaster-cast sculpture different from Cupid. 

By challenging perception in this still-life, Cézanne draws attention to the act of painting itself and to the ways in which we comprehend reality.

Want to learn more about the details of Cézanne's Still Life with Plaster Cupid ? Watch Coralie Malissard, the Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, investigate the painting.

In Detail: 'Still Life with Plaster Cupid' by Paul Cézanne, From the collection of: The Courtauld Institute of Art
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Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Still Life with Plaster Cupid, around 1894, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

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