Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Paul Cézanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: “For me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous”; “As for me, I’m old. I won’t have time to express myself”; and “I might as well be dead.” It is possible that the death of his mother on October 25, 1897—she had been a protective and supportive influence—accelerated his meditations on mortality, a subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years.
Cézanne’s interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been drawn to the skulls’ volumetric forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed “How beautiful a skull is to paint!” They also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: “the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of the artist’s portraits.” There would have been further reason for the subject to interest Cézanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Cézanne was a devout Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists’ studios. Indeed, the contents of Cézanne’s studio were known to include “three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross” near one another on the mantelpiece.
Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled “on his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony brain pans to which the eye holes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by Paul Verlaine:
“For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death’s heads.”