Cézanne and Neuroscience

In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer illustrates how the revelations of the arts and literature give us insight into the human mind with as much, and possibly more clarity than does the work of neuroscientists. The chapter about Paul Cézanne caught my interest.

Cézanne’s vision

The impressionists, whose work was contemporaneous with that of Cézanne tried to capture the effect of light. For example, Claude Monet painted the same scene at different times of day to portray the changes that different lighting had on his subject. Impressionists wielded color, juxtaposition of color and brush stroke or palette knife to paint what they saw before them. Cézanne exhibited twice with the impressionists, who at the time were outsiders from the established art community, but later left their company to pursue his own vision. “Throughout his life he struggled to develop an authentic observation of the seen world by the most accurate method of representing it in paint that he could find. To this end, he structurally ordered whatever he perceived into simple forms and color planes. … [H]e wanted to ‘treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone’ (a tree trunk may be conceived of as a cylinder, an apple or orange a sphere, for example). Additionally, Cézanne’s desire to capture the truth of perception led him to explore binocular vision graphically, rendering slightly different, yet simultaneous visual perceptions of the same phenomena to provide the viewer with an aesthetic experience of depth different from those of earlier ideals of perspective, in particular single-point perspective.” [1] The effort to simplify nature while presenting the truth of a perception sounds paradoxical. If one agrees with the idea that every individual has his or her own truth of a perception, it seems less paradoxical and more like a struggle to externalize his or her own personal truth – a subjective truth.

How does Cézanne’s work relate to neuroscience?

Lehrer notes that “Cézanne’s art exposes the process of seeing,” and proposes that his art “is what reality looks like before it has been resolved by the brain.” [2] Forgiving the philosophical problems of duality and the mereological splitting of the brain into its parts, [3] this is Lehrer’s route to link Cézanne to neuroscience.

Lehrer continues, briefly outlining the early stages of visual processing as discovered by Hubel and Wiesel. They found that certain cells in the visual cortex respond to elementary visual stimuli such as edge contrast, stripes of different widths, and so on. He then describes ‘top-down’ processing of visual data by the frontal lobes. This, he says, is a faster mechanism than that performed by the visual cortex, and provides a rough ‘image’. Then some mechanism combines the data from the frontal lobes with that from the visual cortex and creates a subjective image, that a person sees.

Lehrer uses Cézanne’s method of deconstructing his visual environment and distilling it to a personal, subjective image, as a metaphor for visual processing in the brain. It is true that Cézanne’s painting paved the way for modern art of the 20th century, including cubism and fauvism, giving painters license to build subjectivity into their art.

[2] Lehrer, J. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 2008

[3] Bennett, M., Hacker, P. et. al Neuroscience & Philosophy – Brain, Mind & Language. New York: Columbia University Press 2003 – 2007

3 thoughts on “Cézanne and Neuroscience

  1. Very interesting post, this reminds me of artists in Germany around the 19th and 20th century regarding the work of Freud. He stated that the unconscious manifested itself in one’s art, and provided an outlet for the suppression of pleasure and desire from the id. It’s interesting how art becomes a viewpoint into one’s inner spirituality.


    • Interesting observation. I think that Cezanne’s processes was anything but unconscious. I haven’t studied him enough to know what he was looking for, but he was very deliberate. Of course art can certainly reveal one’s unconscious.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Best regards,



  2. Pingback: Proust Was a Neuroscientist | Science Book a Day

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