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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

When the poet Rainer Maria Rilke returned to Paris in the spring of 1907 after a ten-month absence, he was in the midst of work on two prose projects: Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958) and his two-part monograph Auguste Rodin (1903; English translation, 1919). These two works conveniently define the two sorts of growth to which Rilke bears witness in his Letters on Cezanne—growth as an artist and person, on the one hand, and, on the other, growth as an observer of art and, to some extent, as a critic. These letters also demonstrate the impossibility of separating in Rilke’s life the two kinds of growth: For him, critical observation finds its natural justification in personal insight, artistic self-discovery.

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Letters on Cezanne comprises thirty-one missives of varying length, written in June, September, and October of 1907 to Rilke’s wife, Clara Westhoff Rilke. Although the letters were composed simply as letters—Rilke was always a prolific letter writer and at this time wrote to Clara daily, or nearly so—he toyed even while writing them with the idea of a more public exposition on Paul Cezanne’s work. Rilke feared, however, that his writing about Cezanne might be too subjective:It’s a mistake (and I have to acknowledge this once and for all) to think that one who has such private access to pictures is for that reason justified in writing about them; their fairest judge would surely be the one who could quietly confirm them in their existence without experiencing in them anything more or different than facts. But within my life, this unexpected contact, the way it came and established itself, confirms a great many things and is most relevant.

Again Rilke acknowledges the intense connection he makes between himself and Cezanne when, after describing Cezanne’s life and personality, he writes: “Fare well . . . tomorrow I’ll speak of myself again. But you know how much of myself was in what I told you today.” In spite of his reservations, however, Rilke saw these letters as something different from his other correspondence, confirming them (“those letters on Cezanne”) as vital to his own work and, indeed, later expressing the wish to have them published as a book.

As edited by his wife, Letters on Cezanne bears witness to the “double world”— the external life and the internal—that Rilke so often bemoaned. The letters are both an exposition of his attempt “to get very close to the facts” of Cezanne’s work and a record of a process begun earlier in his life and perhaps never completed. “It was the turning point in these paintings which I recognized,” he writes, “because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow. . . .” Though nearly half the letters do discuss or at least mention Cezanne, the collection is not exclusively devoted to that artist. The first letter (“You’re back again”) and the last (written “in the train Prague-Breslau”) place this collection dramatically in the midst of Rilke’s always peripatetic life. Between the frames of arrival and departure, Rilke’s letters have as their subject above all art; within that general category, four major immediate subjects emerge: Rilke himself in Paris, Vincent van Gogh (who had died in 1890), Auguste Rodin (as whose secretary Rilke had served for a short time), and, most important, Paul Cezanne.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Bayley, John. “Big Three,” in The New York Review of Books. XXXII (December 5, 1985), pp. 3-4.

Moss, Howard. Review in The New Yorker. LXII (July 7, 1986), p. 80.

Petzet, Heinrich Wiegand. Foreword to Letters on Cezanne, 1985.

Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1986.

Rewald, John. Cezanne: A Biography, 1986.

Rolleston, James. Review of Letters on Cezanne in Southern Humanities Review. XXI (Spring, 1987), pp. 168-170.

Rolleston, James. Review of Rodin in Southern Humanities Review. XXI (Spring, 1987), pp. 168-170.

Rolleston, James. Review of Selected Poems in Southern Humanities Review. XXI (Spring, 1987), pp. 168-170.

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