R904 – Les Grands Arbres, 1902-1904 (FWN343)
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A massive, gnarled tree reaches toward a smaller, straighter one, which in turn reaches back; we seem to be witnessing the beginnings of a wary encounter between two antagonists. The branches shoot past each other, never quite meeting, but the leaves enmesh the two trees; several smaller branches move in and out of space above the straight, diagonal one, and may belong to either tree. It is this steely bridge across the nearly empty space that unifies the risky composition, and the vibration of the irregular patches of color that gives it nervous movement. It is an exceptional painting, full of movements that begin but do not end, lines that will not stay in place, and many rich ambiguities.
One ambiguity does leave one puzzled, however: the peculiar patch of orange that cuts across the trunk of the right tree, without apparent justification. A watercolor of the same motif (RW574) tells us what the tree really looked like, however: it ended at the level of the orange patch, which means that it stood next to the left tree, not in front of it.
This worked well as a horizontal composition, but having chosen a vertical canvas for the oil painting, Cézanne must have anticipated having an empty, dead space at the bottom; he therefore gave the trunk a seeming extension—a single line that takes us forward and down, but really stands for nothing in particular. It is only a line, but it gives the painting depth, movement, and a tense ambiguity.
Source: Machotka, Cézanne: The eye and the Mind.