Harmony in Painting – Through the Eyes of Cezanne

Harmony is a term I’ve most-often heard in reference to music, not visual art. As I’m learning more about composition — another term I’m familiar with as a musician — I’m discovering the importance of creating harmony within our art works. But what does harmony mean?

I’ve been browsing through art magazines and websites to come up with answers, and here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Harmony and balance go hand in hand.
  2. Harmony can be achieved by use of objects or compositional elements that share an association.
  3. Using colors with a close relationship can lead to harmony.
  4. Repeating similar shapes in a painting helps bring about harmony.
  5. Using repetition and similarity gives a painting a unified feeling.

Of course, too much of anything — even something good — can bring less-than-desirable results, and in art, excessive harmony leads to monotony. Contrasting elements are required to break up that monotony, otherwise our attempts at harmony will fall flat.

French artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) said of harmony:

“When paintings are done right, harmony appears by itself. The more numerous and varied they are, the more the effect is obtained and agreeable to the eye”.

Although, to be honest, his statement doesn’t tell me much about what harmony is or how to create it, a look at Cezanne’s paintings reveals harmony at work.

Still LIfe with a Curtain 1895Fruit lover that I am, I’ve always adored Still Life with Curtain. Cezanne painted this work in 1895, and look at the marvelous harmony he’s created.

The repetition of the oranges, the curved lines throughout, and the complementary color associations all give harmony to the painting. The white of the cloth provides a pleasing contrast. Nothing monotonous here!

Just as another little aside, I counted all those fruits. Odd numbers, you know, that’s what we’re told. Sure enough, he has three groups of oranges. The first is a group of five, followed by a group of three, and then a final group of five. It’s a total of thirteen, but who — besides me — is counting?

The Artists Father 1866Another Cezanne I like is this portrait of his father reading the newspaper. He seems so engaged. He’s perched on the edge of his seat, and I can’t help but wonder what current events he’s reading about.

But, back to harmony. Harmonious colors. Harmonious shapes. Harmonious painting.

Cezanne makes it seem so simple. When paintings are done right, harmony does appear by itself, just as he said.

Woman in Green Hat 1894Another favorite is Woman in a Green Hat.

She looks a bit stiff, rather uncomfortable, and what’s always caught my attention in this painting is the way she’s leaning slightly to the left.

I love the colors — harmonious, indeed — and I love the hat. Again, the repeated lines in the painting add to that feeling of harmony.

I don’t see her as an especially attractive woman, nor does she appear too friendly or too happy. Yet I’m drawn to the picture. Cezanne’s use of harmony has caught my attention, leaving me to wonder about this lady in the green hat. Who is she?

Cezanne, as you’ve probably guessed is one of my favorite artists. I’ll be sharing more of my favorites from time to time, and I’d love to know what artists have most inspired you. We can learn so much from the great works of the masters.

Now, I’m heading to the kitchen to grab an orange from the fruit bowl. Funny how I always get that craving when I look at Cezanne’s still life paintings.

Black LineLearn more about the life and works of Paul Cezanne.

Paul Cezanne – The Complete Works

The Art Story: Paul Cezanne



Cezanne: A Life by Alex Danchev

Cezanne by Ulrike Becks-Malorny

The Letters of Paul Cezanne by Alex Danchev



  1. I also love how none of these paintings are “perfect”–each has something that could be considered a technical “flaw.” Yet it’s because of that imperfection that we get harmony, too–for harmony requires a pleasing tension. If the face of the woman were rendered more precisely, or if the father’s legs weren’t shifted over just slightly to the left, the way the are, that tension would be missing, and the harmony would shift to monotony. I’m thinking of intervals in music…


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