Paul Cézanne: Pyramid of Skulls

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Pyramid of Skulls, painting by Paul Cézanne

Pyramid of Skulls (Pyramide de crânes), oil on canvas painting by Paul Cézanne, 46.5 cm x 39 cm, private collection

The Pyramid of Skulls (Pyramide de crânes), painted in 1901 is one of several still life paintings the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) created between 1898 and 1905, in the last decade before his death in 1906.

The painting depicts three human skulls arranged in a geometric formation reminiscent of a pyramid, with a partly visible fourth skull on the back of the three. The skulls, painted in a pale but luminescent light contrasting with a background of vivid colors deepen to black almost in the middle of the canvas, creating depth and a sensation of death itself. The painting is exceptional for a Cézanne, as the skulls, dominating the canvas and placed visually very close to viewers, confront the viewers with an eerie silence that sends down the spinal cord a numbing sensation and fear of the inevitability of death.

Some of the other famous still lifes with skulls painted by the artist can be viewed at the Kunsthaus Zürich (Still Life with Skull, Candle and Book, 1865-1867), the Barnes Foundation (Still Life with a Skull, 1895-1900), the Detroit Institute of Arts (Still Life, Three Skulls, 1900), and the graphite and watercolor on paper painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, Three Skulls (1902-1906), which the artist completed before his death in 1906.

According to many art writers, the skull paintings and their studies by Paul Cézanne have inspired and influenced the future generation of artists, including Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso.

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