Paul Cézanne’s Skulls


In today’s post, Adam takes a look at Cézanne’s preoccupation with skulls and the theories surrounding his fascination with such macbre objects.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Skull, c.1890s. Pencil on paper. Courtesy of the Estate of Karsten Schubert.

Here at the Whitworth, thanks to the generosity of gallerist, collector, author and publisher Karsten Schubert, we hold one of the best collections of Cézanne works on paper in the United Kingdom. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is regarded by many as one of the most influential artists of the 19th century, often being described as beginning the transition from impressionism to new lines of artistic technique in the 20th Century such as Cubism.

Although renowned for his approach to building form with colour, our exhibition, ‘Cézanne at the Whitworth’ focuses more on his drawings and prints. Highlighting the importance of drawing, repetition and copying in the development of an artist. Amongst these drawings and prints are many drawings and sketches derived directly from Cézanne’s personal sketchbooks, giving a fantastic and intimate insight into the early creative process of the artist.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Skull, c.1890s. Pencil on paper. Courtesy of the Estate of Karsten Schubert.

An Unassuming Sketch

One such drawing displayed in our ‘Cézanne at the Whitworth’ exhibition is a small unassuming skull, drawn in pencil on a small page of a sketchbook. I found myself immediately drawn to the sketch, from the old yellowing paper to the large dark orbitals of the skull itself, I wanted to know about this drawing and the story behind it.  If you are familiar with Cézanne’s work you will not be surprised that he has chosen a skull as his subject; there are multiple famous examples of Cézanne painting skulls, especially around the turn of the century.

The Beauty of the Macabre

Paul CPaul Cézanne (1839-1906). Nature morte au crâne (Still Life with a Skull), c.1895-1900. Source: WikiCommons

So why focus on a human skull? Cézanne is known for supposedly exclaiming: “How beautiful a skull is to paint!” it is possible that Cézanne was drawn to skulls as a subject for his work as a volumetric form; much in the same way he was drawn to painting fruit and vases in some of his other most famous works. The skulls in these paintings seem to jump out at the viewer in an almost three dimensional effect.

Personal Strife

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Pyramide de crânes (Pyramid of Skulls), c.1898-1900. Oil on Canvas. Source: WikiCommons

The sketch of a skull is not linked in any way to his still life works which depict skulls. Despite this, you are able to see clearly Cézanne’s painting style mirrored in the harsh shading on the surface of the skull. The sketch itself is dated from the 1890s. While this was a period in Cézanne’s life when he was beginning to gain much recognition for his work, it seemed to be a time that he was finding personally difficult. Towards the end of the 19th century Cézanne was living in increased isolation; suffering from diabetes, his health was deteriorating and so were his personal relationships with his friends and family. He supposedly no longer had a relationship with his best friend Emile Zola and, to top it off, his mother passed away in 1897. Cézanne had a good relationship with his mother and she remained supportive of his art throughout his life, despite the fact that his father was not. All of these factors contributed to Cézanne’s intense consideration of mortality during that part of his life.

Memento Mori

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Les Trois Crânes (The Three Skulls), c.1898. Oil on Canvas. Source: Wikicommons.

In France, during this time period, skulls were found in many Catholic homes and churches. Many of Cézanne’s still life paintings of skulls dated to the 1880’s seem to appear in a Memento Mori context. Cézanne himself was known to have three human skulls in his studio in Aix-En-Provence. One visitor to the studio in July 1902 described this encounter: “In his bedroom, on a narrow table in the middle, I noticed three human skulls facing one another, three beautiful polished ivories. He spoke of a very good painted study that was somewhere in the attic. I wanted to see it. But Cézanne could not find the key to the garret, and blamed his maid for its misplacement”. These skulls remain in Cézanne’s old studio in Aix-En-Provence to this day.

In the end, one can only speculate as to the reason that Cézanne chose to paint skulls, whether there is some deeper meaning to this, or whether it was as simple as him just liking to paint them, we aren’t likely to find out the exact reason. However, I am grateful he did, because they are some of his most spectacular paintings.


Ridinghouse and The Whitworth, Cézanne at the Whitworth, (Manchester, 2019).

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