Word Gallery: Passage

Throughout art history, scholars have devised a special vocabulary to talk about art. These terms are very useful, but they are not always self-explanatory. So we thought we'd take you into the art historical word gallery to provide some definitions commonly used to describe artistic styles, techniques, or movements in art.


Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906). Forest Interior, ca. 1898–1899. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection. 1977.4

Passage (pronounced in French, e.g. pä-säzh) describes a faceting technique used to break up the contours that define objects or scenes, so that surfaces appear to flow together, blurring the distinctions between solid form and space, foreground and background.

Paul Cézanne employed passage throughout his work, as can be seen here in Forest Interior, currently on view at the Legion of Honor. In this landscape, individual elements of the composition are treated as units or tesserae carefully nestled together to form an overall mosaic of form. In this way, passage compresses the picture plane in favor of emphasizing the flat canvas rather than illusionistic perspective.

The tonal gradation and textural contrast definitive of passage ultimately served as a precursor to cubism, a technique innovated by Pablo Picasso. Picasso's cubist works can be seen at the de Young in the special exhibition Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris through October 10.