Friday, October 16, 2009


In which the blogger considers how often he looks in order to see a fossil, takes a fossil from animal to plant and back again, posits that science is about this kind of seeing, and ponders Cézanne’s view of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

[updated October 17, 2009]

Identifying a fossil can be a protracted process for me. Often I have to look and look, and look again. Each time there’s the chance I’ll see something different and identify the object anew. But, as I suggest below, this isn’t just true for an amateur at work.

The kind of journey that I launched for a one inch long object found last week on a stream sandbar is an extreme example of this process. I discovered it at a site I’ve written of before – a small stream exposing a thin fossiliferous band of Severn Formation material, which is Upper Cretaceous (a proper use of the adjective Upper by the way – see earlier post), as it runs over the clayey top of the Matawan Formation. I look for sandbars that might have caught fossils leached out of the Severn Formation.

That day, in the midst of an encouraging run of finds, I spot an object, mostly black with some reddish material on it. The feel is fossil, the look is . . . well, it has a somewhat conical top (or bottom?) protruding through the remnant of a rounded band, with a bifurcated tail, one side very truncated, presumably broken off. Here’s a graphical representation of what I remember of my first impression:

First identity: As I put this specimen into a pouch for safekeeping, having granted it only a little time for consideration, based on what I had seen, my verdict is that this is possibly a tooth with broken roots surrounded by remnant of jaw bone. Niiiice.

Second identity: Several hours later, as I place some of the day’s finds into a tray to soak in water to loosen any clay and grit, I look over this specimen and my excitement fades. In the fluorescent basement light, I see that it resembles nothing so much as a small piece of twig from a bush or tree with a small knot in it. I tap it gently against my teeth, afraid it will turn out not to be stone, so not a fossil. It clinks. Stone. Okay, fossilized wood? What do I know about the actual environment at this site during the Late Cretaceous?

Third identity: The next afternoon, some 12 hours after its discovery, I turn the piece of fossilized wood over in my hands. A bit of clay flakes off. I gently take a sharp probe to the specimen and carefully remove some more of a layer of clay and sand. No, not fossilized wood, I now see hollow channels here, some still filled with sediment, some partially broken open. This is probably an aggregation of Annelid (worm) tubes, perhaps from Serpula. The picture below shows two sides of the fossil.

So, in the course of 12 hours, this specimen in the eyes of an amateur changed from vertebrate to plant to invertebrate. Quite a journey.

I would argue that in each step of that process I found an identity that was true at that moment, one that fit the features of the object as I knew them. Another look and, perhaps, a new identity, a new understanding. What played out on a micro/amateur level with this little fossil seems, to me, to be what paleontology, for that matter, all science is – an process of interpretation and reinterpretation, all in an effort to advance understanding. Over time, paleontologists may offer profoundly different interpretations of precisely the same fossil specimens. They are seeing the fossils differently. The multiple times that the fossils from the Burgess Shales have been rethought is but one prominent example.

I’ll go further and venture that this looking and looking again, trying to really see, may be how we can best make sense of our world in all domains, not just those involving a little mundane fossil or a rich array of fossils from the Cambrian.

It's hard not to reach that conclusion because I've been immersed in Susan Vreeland's fiction which explores the role of art and the artist in life. Most recently, I have been reading Life Studies, a collection of Vreeland’s short stories. Its first set of stories (the Then stories in this volume) centers on moments in the lives of famous artists, primarily Impressionists, as seen through the eyes of members of their surrounding cast of characters – wives, models, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, or townsfolk. The impact of art on life is examined through how the artists and their art are seen and felt by those around them. Some of the stories are quite fine; a few perhaps too precious.

One of the Then pieces, “Of These Stones,” is a story about the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, set in Aix-en-Provence in 1896. It’s Cézanne’s obsession with a mountain that drew me into this story and then into learning more about Cézanne. This obsession with the mountain is a subject of derision among the locals. The main character’s grandmother adds to the insults that the rest of the family has been heaping on Cézanne for his eccentric and immoral behavior, “He’s a fool to paint the same mountain every day. Can’t he get it right?”

In fact, Cézanne painted that mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, more than 60 times. Here are three of those landscapes. The few I’ve seen suggest it wasn’t just differences in the time of day or the weather that were captured, but the vantage point changed, so, as Cézanne saw the mountain, its very shape differed as did its relationship to the rest of the landscape. The first painting below is circa 1897-1898, the second 1900, and the third circa 1902.

Vreeland offers an explanation of why Cézanne returned the mountain to canvas repeatedly – in the story, she has Cézanne say, in effect, it’s to know the mountain, which is always different but always the same, and to know God.

There’s another aspect of Cézanne’s attachment to the mountain that I came upon as I read further about his life and art. It changed my view of the artist and the mountain. In painting the mountain, I would suggest, Cézanne may also have been looking back into deep time, exploring the ancient history of the mountain, not just depicting its changing surface or searching for God. I like to think he was trying to see the geological truth of the mountain in these landscapes.

Let me try to make a case for this, though I suspect I will succeed only at describing a strong nexus between Cézanne and geology.

Provence is a geological treasure trove abounding with mountains, valleys, gorges, and quarries; it also is paleontologically rich, with prehistoric human settlements and sites with myriad fossils, dinosaur bones and eggs among them. Most importantly, there’s the mountain itself:
As a geological specimen, indeed, Sainte-Victoire was a naturalist’s dream come true. Its exterior sheath of gray-blue limestone was encrusted with rare fossils. Its inner core, composed of reclining layers of stone sediments, constituted a distinct geological formation unique to the Aix region called ‘pli anticlinal couche’ or ‘feuille couchee d'Aix’ [an anticlinal fold]. [Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in his Culture, 2003, p. 175 – link here; an anticline is an upward fold of the rock strata]

That Cézanne was attuned to the geological riches of Provence seems clear and, perhaps also to the paleontological riches (of course, I would expect the latter from the former). In addition to the writer Emil Zola, another of Cézanne’s closest friends was his occasional painting companion Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a world renowned professor of zoology and paleontology at the University of Marseille. Marion had earned doctorates in zoology and geology. He achieved some of his reputation by finding Neolithic skulls and other remains near the western slope of the mountain. Art historian Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, "As young men, both Cezanne and Zola came under the spell of Marion's geological fervor." [Cézanne and Provence, p. 160]

In addition to the Mont Sainte-Victoire series, Cézanne often painted the abandoned Bibemus Quarry. Here’s a painting that belongs in both series – the quarry is seen with the mountain in the background (Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the Bibemus Quarry, circa 1897).

Art historian Meyer Schapiro offers a fascinating interpretation of this particular painting, a wonderfully geological one. He writes,
Instead of suspending the observer above the valley, [Cézanne] places between him and the main object an abyss, the quarry across whose void he views the opposite rocks and the rising peak. In this process, the landscape itself has become dramatic, filled with striving, titanic energies; but these are outside the spectator's realm, beyond approach. The mountain, like a heroic sculpture, is set on a gigantic pedestal of rock enclosed by trees. One side rises in a sheer unbroken slope, the other, a strangely animated line, changes its course in several abrupt breaks. For the first time we see the peak as a personal object with a distinct profile, or with two sides, like a human face. It has lost the old classic symmetry and has become a complex, dynamic form. At the same time, its elevation, its strained upward movement, is more pronounced because of its position in space – close to the upper edge of the canvas and directly above the vertical walls of the quarry. There is no broad horizontal plane, no immense platform of earth, to tranquillize the natural pyramid, but a deep vertical cleft at its convex base, splitting the quarry wall in two and marked by unstable, tilted trunks, adds to the restless effect in this setting of great pressures and heat. [as quoted at the WebMuseum, Paris – link here]
Striving, titanic energies. Unstable, tilted. Great pressures and heat. Look closely at the mountain, Cézanne has painted the slope as sharp V-shaped folds. Beautiful.

And finally, from Cézanne himself:
In order to paint a landscape well, I first need to discover its geological structure. . . . I come face-to-face with my motif; I lose myself in it . . . gradually the geological structures become clear to me, the strata, the main planes of my picture, establish themselves and mentally I draw their rocky skeleton . . . . Everything steadies into place. . . . Red earth masses emerge from an abyss. [as quoted in Cézanne and Provence, p. 176]

And Then A Bit More Came Into View

After putting up this post yesterday, I came across more wonderful confirmation of what I was coming to understand about Cézanne. For much of the year, some museum goers in England and the U.S. had an opportunity to view a very interesting exhibit exploring Darwin’s influence on the arts. Entitled Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, it showed at the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, Connecticut) earlier this year and just closed at The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, England – link here). I was bowled over to see that the exhibit devoted an entire section to "Darwin and Impressionism." Of Cézanne, the exhibit’s materials on the Fitzwilliam site state: “In the 1860s, one of Paul Cézanne’s closest friends was Antoine-Fortuné Marion (1846-1900), an aspiring painter who turned to paleontology and later became one of France’s leading Darwinists. Cézanne’s fascination with the rock formations and ancient cultures of Provence owed much to Marion’s Darwinian notions and his fossil discoveries in the region of Mont Sainte-Victoire.” Among the works featured is Cézanne’s Rocks (circa 1867-70, the painting can be seen at the link here). This painting, according to the museum's materials, shows that: “Cézanne’s view of the Provencal landscape was coloured by an awareness of the events in geological time that had shaped it. In this view of rock formations in his native Provence, Cézanne is careful to record one of the geological peculiarities of the area: the brown sandstone that has been weathered into round, boulder-like formations.”


All images of Cézanne paintings posted here were found at the WebMuseum, Paris – link here.


  1. "...One side rises in a sheer unbroken slope, the other, a strangely animated line, changes its course in several abrupt breaks. For the first time we see the peak as a personal object with a distinct profile, or with two sides, like a human face. It has lost the old classic symmetry and has become a complex, dynamic form."

    Mount Rundle!

    Calgary, Alberta, Canada

  2. Perfect fit to another mountain made of limestone.


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