Numbering Cézanne’s Blues

Tori Amos has a question for us, and she asks it twice in her recent song 16 Shades of Blue, once at the beginning of the track and again at the end: “Before you drop another verbal bomb / Can I arm myself with Cézanne’s sixteen shades of blue?”

Go ahead, I say. (You can listen to Amos’s song here.)


Why Sixteen?

But then—as a a chronic art history pedant—I toss a rather literal-minded question of my own back at her. Why sixteen shades of blue? Why not, say, sixteen hundred? Or infinite shades of blue? When he described Cézanne’s palette, Emile Bernard mentioned just three basic blues: cobalt, ultramarine, and Prussian. All of the other blues in Cézanne’s oil paintings derive from these.

So where does Amos’s number come from? The singer explained her lyric in a conversation with The Irish Times. She describes looking at Cézanne’s The Black Clock:

Rhythms and music started happening in my head,” she nods. “Then I began reading that Rilke would say that he [Cézanne] would paint in at least 16 shades of blue at times” (my italics).


Cezanne, The Black Clock

Cézanne, The Black Clock

In a song about time and aging, Amos’s allusions to The Black Clock–a clock without hands–are especially apt and layered: “If the clocks are black / absorbing everything but / a remembering / how we made it that / clocks are black.” But to return from black to blue: What is this Rilke reference Amos mentions in her interview?

The Rilke Connection

In 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, Rilke had been in Paris, where he saw the Cézannes included in the Salon d’Automne. He described his responses to these in a famous series of letters to his wife, Clara, and after Rilke’s death these letters were collected in his Briefe über Cézanne (1952).

I’d read the English translation of this book, so assumed that this is where I’d previously come across the vaguely familiar sounding phrase “sixteen shades of blue.” I’d been meaning to reread Rilke’s thoughts on the artist and now had an excuse to do so.

There are, it turns out, plenty of mentions of blue in Rilke’s letters, but nowhere does he explicitly link the colour to the number sixteen. In her interview, Amos’s language implies that she had been somebody writing about Rilke, rather than Rilke himself (“I began reading that Rilke would say….”). And, sure enough, a little googling took me to Alex Danchev’s recent biography of Cézanne. “According to Rilke,” Danchev writes, “Cézanne used at least sixteen shades of blue” (364).


He lists them:

Some of them are familiar (sky blue, sea blue, blue-green), but for the most part these were no ordinary blues. Among his blues: a barely blue, a waxy blue, a listening blue, a blue dove-gray, a wet dark blue, a juicy blue, a light cloudy blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a self-contained blue, and a completely supportless blue.

This is beautiful, heady stuff. Many of these phrases refer either to Cézanne’s art in general or to specific paintings. Thus Rilke uses “thunderstorm blue” in his description of The Black Clock: “Its inward carmine bulging out into brightness provokes the wall behind it to a kind of thunderstorm blue, which is then repeated, more deeply and spaciously, by the adjoining gold-framed mantelpiece mirror” (88).


Cézanne, The Black Clock (detail)

But there’s a problem with Danchev’s list: though all Rilke’s blues appear in his Briefe über Cézanne, not all of them refer to Cézanne’s paintings. His “completely supportless blue,” “barely blue,” “blue dove-gray,” and “Egyptian shadow-blue” can all be found in descriptions of Paris; and while his “waxy blue” refers to “Pompeiian wall paintings,” his “wet dark” and “self-contained” blues describe not Cézanne’s colour but Van Gogh’s.

Upon closer inspection, Danchev’s sixteen items should be just nine or so. He, along with other writers, has perhaps taken his theme from Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, whose foreword to Briefe über Cézanne compiles all these references to blue in a paragraph. Petzet sees them as evidence of the poet’s “tenacious struggle for the utmost precision” (xix-xx). They are not, surely, just different shades of blue (as though each refers to a specific pigment or mixture of pigments) so much as different and imaginative ways of describing the experience of the colour (or colours) in artworks and elsewhere.


Why Not Sixteen?

I should put my art historical pedantry to one side for a moment and admit that there’s something about the number sixteen that makes me glad Amos chose it. In 16 Shades of Blue an archetypal number collides with an archetypal colour (or feeling). Sweet mixes with sad: no wonder it’s not the first song to have this title. But while Johnny Cymbal’s 16 Shades of Blue (1964) itemizes the sixteen reasons a girl has to be blue on her sixteenth birthday, Amos addresses aging in a more personal and caustic manner. She, too, connects a landmark birthday with a colour or shade: “You say ‘get over it, if 50 is the new black / hooray this could be your lucky day.’”

Finally, there’s this morsel of Cézannian arcana. In French, sixteen (seize) sounds like the first syllable of “Cézanne”, and the family name seems to have been a topic of amusement to the people of Aix-en-Provence. Punningly, Céz-anne could be converted into seize ânes or “sixteen donkeys.” The artist who painted the “thunderstorm blues” of The Black Clock could scarcely escape the number.

It continues to follow him around.




Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (Pantheon, 2012)
Michael Doran, Conversations with Cézanne (University of California Press, 2001)
Sidney Geist, Interpreting Cézanne (Harvard University Press, 1988)
Rainer Maria Rilke (translation and foreword: Heinrich Wiegand Petzet), Letters on Cézanne (North Point Press, 2002)