Wednesday 4 June 2014

Three Pears

Paul Cézanne, French, 1839–1906: Three Pears (Trois Poires)
ca. 1888–90. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on cream laid paper
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum

Paul Cézanne was living in Aix-en-Provence when he painted Trois Poires.  He was isolated from his fellow impressionist and post-impressionist artists.  It must have been autumn or early winter when he selected his three perfect even-sized pears.  He arranged them on a plain dish set upon a table spread with a patterned cloth of curling blue flourishes echoing the fullness of the fruit.  The still-life was painted around 6 years before the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard held Cézanne's first one-man exhibition which featured this work in 1895.  Both Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir wanted to own Trois Poires and settled the matter by drawing lots - Degas was the victor. 

Around the mid-20th century the painting was in the hands of Henry Pearlman, a New Yorker who made his fortune in the cold storage business.  Pearlman's passion for late 19th and early 20th century art ran deep and over three decades he amassed works by artists such as Soutine, Modigliani, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renior, Manet, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and lesser known artists.  I love the sound of Henry Pearlman.  His art collecting genuinely seems to have been based on true appreciation rather than sheer acquisitiveness.  The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection is on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum and fifty artworks from the collection are in the touring exhibition Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection.  You can catch the exhibition, as I did, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 22 June 2014.  It then moves on, appropriately, to Aix en Provence before returning across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Gerogia and Vancouver, Canada, before ending its tour at the Princeton University Art Museum.  The stars of the show, for me, are undoubtedly the Cézannes; the still-lifes and landscapes in particular.

Pyrus communis "Jargonelle"

In London, the pear blossom came and went in the blink of an eye this spring.  Pink-tinged buds quickly opened to present pure white cups with delicate deep-red anther topped filaments. All too soon they faded, but what the blossom lacked in longevity it made up for in abundance.  A promising number of acorn-sized green fruits, tinged with russet-brown, jostle for position.  Espaliered against a south-facing brick wall, it's labelled Pyrus communis 'Jargonelle' - derived from the European or common pear.  I like the fact the gardener broke the planting rules with this pear - "A tip bearer, not suitable for training into cordons or espaliers".

Sadness at the withered blossom is replaced by the hope for a basket of ripe, juicy pears come September - even if they will be enjoyed by someone else.  By the 17th century 300 pear varieties were recorded and the French were the fruits main champion.  The Jargonelle, or Gergonell, is one of the few survivors of the wave of pear varieties which arrived in the UK from France in the early 17th century. It's an early pear, and the first to ripen are the worst keepers.  Decay in pears starts from the core so a perfectly good looking fruit may be hiding a shrivelled, brown heart.

The chances of seeing a Jargonelle pear on the fruit counter today are slim, I think, though you might come across one in a private orchard.  The mighty Doyenné du Comice, twice as weighty, is much more likely to end up in your shopping basket - but the Comice is undeniably superior.  Edward Bunyard in his Anatomy of Dessert writes on the storing of Comice pears "When the green colour begins to change to yellow the moment of watchfulness arises, and when the whole fruit is an even yellow the moment has arrived....... no day should pass without inspection, but not handling."  Cézanne's curvaceous trio of pears may well have been comice.  Bearing just a touch of green, Bunyard would doubtless have pronounced them not quite ready to eat.

Here are my favourite simple instructions from Jane Grigson for cooking pears.  Quantities are imprecise. It's intuitive cooking, the kind of dish you feel your way into, and in my view, the best kind.  According to Grigson "any ripe but still firm ... fragrant eating pear will do".  

Buttered Pears 
Allowing one pear per person, peel, core and cut into wedge-shaped slices, sprinkling them with lemon juice to stop browning as you work.  Fry them gently in clarified unsalted butter until golden brown then turn and sprinkle with caster sugar.  Cook until the juices caramelise.  Remove the pear pieces to serving dishes. Deglaze the pan with a little water, and a splash of pear brandy if you have it, boil down a little and stir in some cubes of unsalted butter.  Pour the sauce over the pears.

I cook apples similarly to this, adding a little cream at the end after taking the pan off the heat.  Worth a try with pears too, I think, when the "moment" arrives.

Sources and further reading:
Paul Cézanne
Three Pears ca. 1888-1890
Ashmolean Museum
FT article: Cezanne and modern masterpieces from the Pearlman Collection by Jackie Wullschlager
Princeton University Art Museum: The Pearlman Collection
The Pearlman Foundation
The National Fruit Collection, Brogdale
Jane Grigson's Fruit Book

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