Rachel Cohen

Louise Moillon Serendipity

Louise Moillon Serendipity

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, Art Institute of Chicago. All photos Rachel Cohen.

Last week, on my first visit to the museum in six months, I saw a painting by an artist I don’t remember ever having heard of. This kind of serendipity is a special grace of museums.

When I teach writing about the arts each spring, I often teach an essay by Zbigniew Herbert called Still Life with a Bridle, about being arrested by an unknown painting, and from there beginning to discover its painter. Sometimes I teach Mark Doty’s slender book Still Life with Oysters, about falling in love with a Dutch still life one day at the Metropolitan Museum. It is interesting that both of these poets’ essays are ignited by a still life with a dark background made in the strained and brilliant 17th century by a Netherlandish painter.

Louise Moillon (1610-1696) is identified as French and her name sounds French, but her family were Calvinists from the Southern Netherlands. They lived in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, which was where Protestants fleeing persecution took refuge in the time when France still sheltered them. Her father was a painter, from whom she learned the basics of painting in the family workshop, as did one of her brother's, Isaac Moillon, also a painter. After the father died, the mother, herself the daughter of a goldsmith, another highly trained artistic profession, married another painter, and this stepfather then ran the family workshop and supported Louise Moillon in becoming a painter. She was one of the most recognized French still life painters of her time, collected by King Charles I of England, and at least four of her paintings are in the Louvre.

This painting is in its own kind of exile from its origins.

Now that I know how to place her, I have a hundred thoughts – about the inventions of these works, and their deliberately slightly distinguishing the space in which each element hangs; about the fact that she was one of the two French painters to begin mixing still lifes with figure painting; about the way her paintings, aglow before their dark backgrounds would have looked to Chardin when he saw them, as he surely would have, and as he made his own experiments in the combining of domestic life with still life; about Moillon painting less after she married, then returning to painting when she was in her sixties; about her ceasing to paint altogether after France issued the edict of Nantes in 1685, which forced two of her grown children to flee to England, and possibly resulted in her husband going to prison; about her being given a Catholic burial when she died at eighty-six in 1696.

All of this will be good to think about. Right now, let me store the first impressions, the way they sang out across the room last Monday.

Look at this.

At this.

At this.

Cézanne and Ponge: Wooden Table

Frederick Project: Tableau

Ceacutezanne still life

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-88, Harvard Art Museums, detail photos Rachel Cohen

The painting is called Still Life with Commode. It’s from 1887-88, a strong period of Cézanne’s work. He was fighting hard with his canvases, and able to do some of what mattered to him.

He made two very similar versions of this painting, which was unusual for him; there is only one other still life pair where he worked through the same arrangement twice. So, the elements and their arrangement here were of unusual interest to him.

The back of the picture is the commode.

Which is very wooden. The brown is so rich with this green.

Illuminated with the jar and its underlaid white, the yellow and rose.


Yesterday, my friend Massimo Warglien sent me a note that was partly about Cézanne, about Merleau-Ponty and ideas of space and time. Massimo also mentioned the poet Francis Ponge, and a line from one of Ponge's poems that he thought went together with the Cézanne of Merleau-Ponty.

"I recently read a series of radio conversations by Merleau-Ponty (translated in English as “The world of perception”). Discussing the work of Cézanne, he claims it captures “a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other, a world in which being is not given but rather emerges over time.” I like to connect it, as a kind of non-human mirror, to Francis Ponge: “Le temps des végétaux se résoult à leur espace” - again, resolving, a word I found in your notes on Cézanne."

I might translate that line of poetry: The time of growing plants resolves itself in their space. Ponge, the poet of things – of soap, shells, asparagus – trailing back and forth across the border we usually make between the animate and the inanimate. I love Ponge's poems, and I have thought of the work of Ponge as part of thinking about still life, but I don't think I have ever thought of Ponge and Cézanne together.


I woke early this morning. By my bed, a tiny book that has been there for months, a new translation of Ponge’s book The Table. Translated by Colombina Zamponi and published by Wakefield Press. It is in the form of a notebook. Meditations on the table, written and written again in 1968 and 1970.

In the second entry, Ponge remarks on the etymological relationship between la table and the French word for a painting or picture, le tableau. A painting is directly derived from a table, a rectangular area of consideration. I thought of the Cézanne I had set myself to think about this last few days.

The planes of wood are so evident. And the others almost hidden away.

I feel sure Cézanne noticed the resonance between his table and his tableau.


Ponge writes over and over about writing and tables, how he cannot write without a table, or a tablet, how the horizontal plane is an absolutely necessity. He says the wall on which the first paintings were made has come down to be the table. The second part of an entry from 23 Oct. 70 reads:

The Table is (also) the reversal from back to front (from behind man to his front) of the wall, its position no longer vertical but horizontal. (oblique, in fact: the way Braque's billiard table is broken from horizontal to an oblique vertical.)

In La Table, Ponge mentions two painters: Braque and Picasso. How Braque’s billiard table "is broken from hoizontal to an oblique vertical.” Braque studied Cézanne very closely, and the spatial inventions of Cézanne are always described as the foundation of Cubism. In Cézanne, it is almost as if the painted objects stutter around their edges and this lets them be true and independent without losing touch with one another. [A student of mine used the word stutter about a visual work last fall, though I can no longer remember which student, and I think that student in turn picked it up from an essay by Valeria Luiselli called "Stuttering Cities."]

Ponge’s writing in La Table is especially, deliberately, broken. It also stutters, rephrasing, underscoring, giving different possible iterations, going back the next day to extend or work through again.


It was still almost dark this morning when I woke, and I turned on the bedside lamp to read. Still lying down, I opened the little book at random, and Ponge wrote:

The Table

If not a table (—considering I'm writing this in bed, (and many other texts have been written in the underwoods or on the riverbank)—a tablet at the least is {necessary / indispensable (for this very piece of writing)} (notepad with a cardboard backing, rigid notebook, or, as I have been in the habit of using, a clipboard)}:

A tablet, therefore still a table.

I turned to the first page, to read through in order. I was moved that for Ponge, too, to begin was this time of day. Early in the dark morning. A time that it seems all my friends are in, very gray, where we are putting one foot in front of another, very uncertain.

In the first entry, Ponge writes of the emergence of color in things:

It is daylight, light to read (enough to read) and write (writing comes a bit earlier) about an hour before the sun (that can be seen out here, over the summits of the Roquefort or the Rouret) rises. (which is to say, at 8 a.m. on the dot)

No star left visible, not even the brightest.

Only Venus (and the Moon) still shine, but (as we know) with a light only lent to them.

The colors start to come through more or less around the same time

(first the reds

then the golds, the yellows

then the greens and finally the blues

(8 or 10 minutes

later) Venus is still shining

Broad daylight at 7:15 a.m.


Now I am sitting at my desk, which is a long piece of wood, an old door that Matt turned horizontal. On it, is my computer, the screen at an oblique vertical. Here is my notebook, showing writing and pictures, table and tableau at once.

Weekend Glimpse Cézanne

Frederick Project: Glimpse

Weekend Glimpse Ceacutezanne

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Commode, 1887-1888, Harvard Art Museums, photos Rachel Cohen.

It is the weekend again, and I am leaving a few images from a Cézanne still life at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts for anyone who might pass by and be in need of a fine green, a modulating brown, yellow apples, and a sense of achieved stability.

Wishing you peace, health, tranquility, resolve.

Cézanne Still and Blue

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne Still and Blue

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, 1893-94, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photos Rachel Cohen

Today I’m going to work on how Cézanne’s blue resolves.

One sense of resolve is to determine to go forward. Cézanne’s perennial project. Famous for destroying his canvases, for painting them out and scraping them off and beginning again, for going out on the road every day to set up his easel and work again at the view of the bay, the view of the mountain. Speaking to few, often frustrated, lonely.

The resolve took great force of character because it was full of uncertainty. He never was sure. Which points back toward an earlier sense of the word resolve, to melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid. See his acknowledged unsteadiness.

We say that photographs have high resolution when we cannot see the separation of their elemental particles. This could mean that the particles are thoroughly dissolved into the medium, the liquid inks, the electronic fields of color. Highly resolved is when things that have been separate are made continuous.

For Cézanne, blue is a key to resolution. Blue knew how hard he worked and was gracious with him.

The resolution to go forward in uncertain circumstances – a resolution that seems especially necessary to get hold of today – would take its force from a thousand small divergences coordinated into one medium.

This is the incredible property of paint: a liquid medium in which the elements of the world may be dissolved and reconstituted anew.