Seven types of ambiguity, Cezanne on Chardin

Alex Danchev’s new translation of The Letters of Paul Cézanne has just been published and, at first glance, looks like a significant improvement on existing collections of the artist’s letters. For starters, Danchev includes some twenty letters, including several to Monet, that are not found in John Rewald’s earlier volume. I’ve yet to read Danchev’s translations systematically, but it’s worth noting that we are now in the position of having multiple English-language translations to compare and choose between. The important letters Cézanne wrote to Emile Bernard, for example, exist in at least four different English translations.

To give you a flavour of these differences, I thought I’d compare the various ways just one section of a letter has been treated. It’s a paragraph taken from a letter to Bernard, dated 27 June 1904. It particularly intrigues me because it’s the only point in his correspondence where Cézanne mentions Chardin. But he chooses to tell Bernard about Chardin’s self-portrait, not, as one might have predicted, a still-life.

Chardin, Self-Portrait, pastel

Chardin, Self-Portrait, pastel

Here then are seven versions of this paragraph, including five different English translations and any accompanying footnotes. I’ll let the differences speak for themselves.

1. Photograph of Cézanne’s original letter (paragraph starts on the right side, fourth line down)

Cezanne, Letter to Bernard, 27 June 1904

Cézanne, Letter to Bernard, 27 June 1904


2. Transcription in French.

Vous vous rappelez le beau pastel de Chardin, armé d’une paire de bésicles, une visière faisant auvent.—C’est un roublard ce peintre. Avez-vous pas remarqué, qu’en faisant chevaucher sur son nez un léger plan transversal d’arête, les valeurs s’établissent mieux à la vue.—Vérifiez ce fait, et vous me direz, si je me trompe.


3. From John Rewald (editor) and Marguerite Kay (translator), Paul Cézanne: Letters (Da Capo Press, 1995 [1941]).

“You remember the fine pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles and a visor providing a shade. He’s an artful fellow, this painter. Haven’t you noticed that by letting a light plate ride across the bridge of the nose the tone values present themselves better to the eye?[a] Verify this fact and tell me if I am wrong.”

a. This sentence is not clear, the French text reads: N’avez-vous pas remarqué qu’en faisant chevaucher sur son nex [sic] un léger plan transversal d’arête, les valeurs s’établissent mieux à la vue?


4. From Michael Doran (editor) and Julie Lawrence Cochran (translator), Conversations with Cézanne (University of California Press, 2001)

“You remember Chardin’s beautiful pastel self-portrait in which he is wearing a pair of eye glasses and a visor which served as a shade.[11] (He’s a clever one, that painter!) Have you noticed how that thin intersecting plane across his nose enhances the values?[12]—Go verify this for me and tell me if I am wrong.—”

11. The reference is to Chardin’s pastel self-portrait of 1775, Autoportrait à l’abatjour [Portrait of Chardin Wearing an Eyeshade], in the Louvre.

12. It may be noted that a straight-edged plane, used as an eyeshade in this way, also encourages the interpretation as curves of “straight” horizontals in the motif being viewed. This may help to explain one class of Cézannian “distortion.”


5. From John House (translator), The Courtauld Cézannes (The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2008)

“Do you remember the beautiful pastel of Chardin, wearing a pair of spectacles, with a visor shading his eyes. He is a crafty one, that painter. Have you noticed that by placing a little horizontal plane across the bridge of his nose he made the values work together better? Check this, and let me know if I am wrong.”


6. From Alex Danchev (editor and translator), The Letters of Paul Cezanne (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013)

“Do you remember the beautiful pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles with a visor shading his eyes?[1] He’s a crafty one, that painter. Have you noticed how, by allowing a plane of light to cross his nose at a slight angle, the values adapt much better to the eye? Take a close look and tell me if I’m not right.”

1. Self-Portrait Wearing an Eyeshade (1775) was a late work, as Cézanne would have known, painted four years before his death. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1839.


7. From Google translate (, accessed 26 September, 2013

“You remember the beautiful pastel de Chardin, armed with a pair of spectacles, a visor making auvent.-C is a rogue this painter. Have you not noticed that overlapping on his nose a slight transverse ridge, the values ​​are set to the best view.-check this and tell me if I’m wrong.”

google goes cezanne Jan 19 2011

This June, while in Paris, I wanted to play the role of Bernard, so I went to the Louvre to “verify,” “check,” and “take a close look” at the Chardin. But this is what I found. The photo should not require much translation.

IMG_5075 (1024x940)