19th Century French Painters and Cezanne

As technology spread abroad, the British exemplar inspired many European artists to try their own experience with the watercolor medium.

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

Delacroix 'Lion' watercolor 1841

Delacroix ‘Lion’ watercolor 1841

It was the virtuoso British watercolorist, Richard Parkes Bonington (1801-1828), who developed a friendship with the younger Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and influenced him to explore the watercolor medium. As a result Delacroix developed his own enthusiasm and fluency in the medium. Delacroix visited London, Rome and Africa. In the latter environment he painted many watercolors of local scenes and local inhabitants. In fact, as he travelled Delacroix painted hundreds of quick sketches and notations which were most often done in watercolors. Opposing the Classical tradition, Delacroix became a leader of Romanticism, which paved the way for Realism, Impressionism and then Modern Art.

The 19th Century art developed in the direction of greater color and light and a more intense palette.


Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)

Theodore Gericault, Trois Chevaux dans leur écurie

Theodore Gericault, Trois Chevaux dans leur écurie


Another French leader in Romanticism, Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), known for his famous painting of the “The Raft of the Medusa” which won a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1819, also produced many watercolors.

Many of these reveal his life-long fascination with horses, and he sketched and painted numerous watercolors representing these and other animals.




In France, the Societe d’ Aquarellists was formed in 1879 by Eugene Lami. The Founding Members included Gustave Dore and Isabey. The terms, aquarelle, and aquarellist entered our vocabulary.

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was known at the time to employ watercolors in his political satire.

French Impressionists and Others

Berthe Morisot, 'Boat on the Quay' 1875, Musee Marmottan, Paris, France

Berthe Morisot, ‘Boat on the Quay’ 1875, Musee Marmottan, Paris, France

The Impressionists as a group painted primarily in oils, but there were a number who did use watercolor regularly or intermittedly. Eugène Boudin (1824 –1898) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) both produced numerous works in watercolor.

Another French artist who was a proponent of watercolor was the Symbolist Gustave Moreau, (1826-98) whose museum in Paris indicates 450 or so watercolors and his pupils included Roualt, Matisse and Marquet.

(Cezanne, as a Post Impressionist was in a separate category.)


Édouard Manet (1832-1883)

Édouard Manet (1832-1883)  'Portrait of Berthe Morisot' 1873-74, The Art Institute of Chicago

Édouard Manet (1832-1883) ‘Portrait of Berthe Morisot’ 1873-74, The Art Institute of Chicago

Édouard Manet , 'Bullfight' 1865

Édouard Manet ‘Bullfight’ 1865












Watercolor reached new artistic heights in the late 19th century. Works in watercolor from this time are characterized by brilliant color and bold brushstrokes also occurring in oil painting with the rise of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The late 19th century saw the growing prestige of watercolor as an artistic medium, which freed artists from having to compete with oil painting. Getty

Vincent Van Gogh

In addition to his better known oil paintings, Vincent van Gogh produced nearly 150 watercolor paintings during his life. Though often lacking his distinctive brush stroke textures, the watercolors are unmistakably Van Gogh in their use of bold, vibrant color. Often times, these watercolors were used as field studies for their eventual larger oil counterparts.

Vincent van Gogh 'Boats at Saintes-Marie' 1888 Hermitage Museum

Vincent van Gogh ‘Boats at Saintes-Marie’ 1888 Hermitage Museum

Similar to his drawings, Van Gogh often did watercolors as studies before doing an oil painting or as practice. Although his watercolors are not as well know as his paintings, Van Gogh knew that he was perfecting his skills and in that he was on the verge of something great. At the age of 28 Vincent wrote the following in a letter to Theo,

“I wish you could see the two watercolours I have brought back with me, for you would realize that they are watercolours just like any other watercolours. They may still be full of imperfections, que soit, I am the first to say that I am still very dissatisfied with them, and yet they are quite different from what I have done before and look fresher and brighter. That doesn’t alter the fact, however, that they must get fresher and brighter still, but one can’t do everything one wants just like that. It will come little by little.”


Cezanne (1839-1906)

In France at the end of the 19th century, the innovative watercolors by Cezanne reserved white spaces as part of the total composition.

Cezanne’s work in watercolor was particularly related to his later work in the oil medium, in terms of the structure and methodology. In fact, in Sir Kenneth Clark’s book, “Landscape into Art,” the author noted how the work which both Turner and Cezanne did in watercolor had a great influence on their respective works in the oil medium.


 Cezanne The Chateau Noir

Cezanne, “The Chateau Noir” 1904

Clark has also written, “Cezanne’s water-colours are amongst the most perfect of his works. . . It is in his water-colours that one recognizes most clearly Cezanne’s faculty of seeing both in depth and pattern at the same time.”

The Chateau Noir is typical of the style of the late watercolors, whereby the short dashed lines, or overlapping clusters of lines, make subtle suggestions of the edges of tree limbs or masonry.

Pure patches of transparent color are applied through thin glazes of paint.

Cezanne produced approximately 400 watercolors. Cézanne’s first one-man show in New York, included 20 watercolors, held at the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, (Gallery 291) where New Yorkers had the opportunity to view the most advanced art from Europe.

Cezanne's Composition by Erle Loran

Cezanne’s Composition by Erle Loran

There are two resources, worth mentioning, which particularly illuminate Cezanne’s use of the landscape themes which surrounded him, and his interpretation and composition. The earliest was: “Cézannes Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs” by Erle Loran, originally published in the 20’s and reissued in 1906.

This book had its provenance in the late 1920s, when Erle Loran, then a young artist who wanted to fathom the mysteries of Cezanne’s structural form, took up residence in the master’s studio in Aix-en-Provence.

For several years he lived there and painted, and when he came across familiar motifs in the countryside, he took snapshots of the setting.

These photographs assisted Loran in his analysis of Cezanne’s composition and served as the basis for this book, which analyzes over 30 of Cezanne’s paintings. This new edition brings Loran’s milestone study up-to-date with a new foreword by art historian Richard Shiff, who places Loran’s work into today’s art historical context.


The second reference is a much later publication which presents many of the same locations along with new discoveries, and extends the kind of work which Loran initiated, but this time the photographs are in color. The book is entitled “Cezanne Landscape Into Art” by Pavel Machotka.

Cezanne, Landscape Into Art, Professor Pavel Machotka

Cezanne, Landscape Into Art, Professor Pavel Machotka

This book presents a new perspective on Paul Cezanne, one of the towering figures of 19th-century art. Pavel Machotka has photographed the sites of Cezanne’s landscape paintings – whenever possibe from the same spot and at the same time of day that Cezanne painted the scenes. Juxtaposing these colour photographs with reproductions of the paintings, he offers a range of evidence to investigate how the painter transformed nature into works of art.

Machotka, himself an artist, moves from painting to painting, examining textures and surfaces, pictorial rhythms, and inflections of tone.

As he analyzes Cezanne’s treatment of individual sites, their transposition into forms and colours, and the artist’s responsiveness to the demands of each composition, we begin to see Cezanne as he saw himself: not as an early Cubist but as a painter who explored his motif for its compositional potential and presented a parallel and faithful conception of it.

Using colour to define form, while retaining hues that are anchored in reality, Cezanne achieved reconstructions rather than intellectual depictions like those of the Cubists.

These two books from different time periods expand the understanding of Cezanne’s relationship to his source material, and the methodology which is pervasive through both his oils and watercolors.

Paul Cezanne 'Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves' 1901-1906

Paul Cezanne ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves’ 1901-1906