Paul Cezanne

The French painter Paul Cezanne was one of the greatest of the Post-Impressionists, whose works and ideas were influential in the aesthetic development of many 20th-century artists and art movements. Cézanne’s art developed out of Impressionism and was misunderstood and discredited by the public during most of his life. Eventually it challenged all the conventional values of painting in the 19th century because of his insistence on personal expression and on the integrity of the painting itself, regardless of its subject matter.

Cézanne was born in 1839 in the wine-producing district of Provence in the south of France. His father was a wealthy banker whose business boomed throughout the artist’s life, which gave Cezanne the financial security that was unavailable to most of his contemporaries. At the age of ten, he entered the local school where one of his subjects was drawing before he went on to the Collège of Bourbon at the age of 13. Here, he met and became friends with the future writer Émile Zola who became the most prominent French novelist of the late 19th century and who was also the man who intervened in the Albert Dreyfus Affair.

The painter stayed on at College for the next six years, until he was 20 where he next attended the law school at the University of Aix, where he was to train as a lawyer. He hated the idea of being a lawyer or a banker like his father and after 2 years study, he managed to persuade him to let him give it up and do what he had always wanted to do – to study painting in Paris. Cezanne then left the University for the capital in 1861. He was encouraged to make this decision by Zola, who was already living in Paris at the time. Cezanne never had it hard there financially for when his father always kept him going with money and when he died later on he left his son the equivelant of £4 million pounds in todays money.

Cézanne’s first stay in Paris lasted only five months. When he discovered that he wasn’t even half as good as some of the students at the Swedish Academy, the underlying instability of his personality gave way to severe depression almost immediately. He only stayed as long as he did because of the encouragement of his friend Zola, but even this wasn’t enough and he abandoned painting, returned home to Aix, and made a new attempt to content himself with working at his father’s bank. However, the painting bug had bitten him too deeply and after a year he returned to Paris determined that this time he would stay. During this formative period, Cézanne spent his time painting between the capital and in his home town of Aix.

The early 1860s was a period of great vitality for Parisian literary and artistic activity. There was an argument going on between the Realist painters, like Gustave Courbet, and the official Académie des Beaux-Arts, which rejected from its annual exhibition all paintings not in the academic Neoclassical or Romantic styles. To counter this refusal of works other than those officially approved, the emperor Napoleon III decreed the opening of a Salon for the Refusals in 1836. When they did first show their works there they were almost universally denounced by the critics—a reaction that only consolidated and bolstered the revolutionary spirit of these painters. Cézanne’s had started off with the academics but his artistic tastes soon shifted away from them to where he became associated with the most advanced members of the new group including Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas.

Most of the rebellious artists that Cezanne came to know were only in their 20s and were just beginning to form their own styles; with the exception of Manet, they were later to become better known as the Impressionist school. Zola was passionately devoted to their cause, but Cézanne’s friendship with the other artists was at first inhibited by his touchiness and deliberate rudeness, born of extreme shyness and a moodiness that was offended by their happy-go-lucky convivial ways. Nevertheless, he was inspired by their revolutionary spirit as he sought to amalgamate the realistic work of Courbet, who pioneered the unsentimental treatment of commonplace subjects, and of the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, whose compositions where more concerned with passion and colour than cold correctness.

During the 1860s Cézanne began to develop a slap-dash approach to painting to which he was not really suited. His subjects were dark and violent and dark, painted in harsh extremes of light and shadow. He thought that by using shock tactics he would become noticed and even famous and so he painted a series of over-dramatised, melodramatic pictures like The Rape, and The Murder. Cezanne believed that works like these would really make the critics and the public take notice of him as a painter but instead of exciting their curiosity his pictures were so badly executed in style and in subject that people laughed at them instead. However, he never really got deeply into this way of painting because in 1870, war broke out between Germany and France and, like a number of the other young painters Cézanne fled Paris for, in his case, Provence, to avoid being drafted into the army.

When the artist ran way from the war he took with him Marie-Hortense Fiquet, a young woman who had become his mistress the previous year and whom he married 16-years later, when his father died in 1886. The two of them settled at Estaque, a small village on the coast of southern France, not far from Marseille. There Cezanne began to paint landscapes, exploring ways to draw nature truthfully and at the same time to express the feelings it inspired in him – approaching his subjects in the same way that his Impressionist friends did. In January 1872 Cezanne’s partner gave birth to a son just shortly before the Impressionist Camille Pissarro invited Cézanne and the family to live alongside him at Pontoise in the valley of the River Ouz.

There and at the nearby town of Auvers, Cezanne began seriously to learn the techniques and theories of Impressionism from Pissarro, who of all his painter friends was the only one patient enough to take the time to teach him their style despite Cezanne’s rude and difficult personality. The two artists worked together off and on through 1874, taking their canvases all over the countryside and painting out-of-doors, in the open air instead of in a studio – a technique that was still considered radical. It was from this time on that Cézanne was to devote himself almost exclusively to landscapes, still life and later, some portraits. Pissarro persuaded him to lighten his former dark colouring and showed him the advantages of using the broken bits of colour and short brushstrokes that were the trademark of the Impressionists.

Even while Pissarro was showing Cezanne the way, so to speak, his work clearly indicated that his vision was unique and that his purpose was quite different from that of the Impressionists. Although he used their techniques, he was not interested in their concern to capture the surface impressions of what they saw. Instead, he became more taken with emphasizing the underlying structure of the objects he painted so that he was already composing with cubic masses and architectural lines while his colours carefully complemented each other in a chromatic unity. His most famous painting of this period, The House of the Suicide, illustrates these forces at work. In 1874 Cézanne returned to Paris and participated in the first official show of the Impressionists. He had been working on pictures to show at the exhibition but had told no one that what he really intended to do was to exhibit not only his landscapes but also what he thought was his ‘masterpiece’.

In the middle of the calm and chaste Impressionist pictures he placed the wildest and most extraordinary of his erotic fantasies which he called the Modern Olympia. This was intended to be a tribute to Manet’s Olympia but, instead of a lovely, naked, slim young women lying on a bed and being attended by her female servant, Cezanne painted a travesty of this by showing a fat, squatting women being dressed by a black servant while a man very like Cezanne is standing watching with lust-filled eyes. The critics and the public hated this not just for its awful subject matter but also because it was painted so badly. Although this and the works he later exhibited in 1877 were the most severely criticized of any of the works exhibited, Cezanne continued to work diligently, periodically going back to soak up the light of Provence. After the second Impressionist show Cézanne finally gave up and broke professionally with Impressionism, although he continued to maintain friendly relations with Pissarro, Monet, and with Renoir, whom he also admired.

By 1880, Cezanne had become so disheartened by the public’s reaction to his works that he began to isolate himself more and more in both Paris and Aix, and also effectively ended his long friendship with Zola. Much of this was caused by his neurotic distrust and jealousy at Zola’s success as well as from disappointment at his “popular” writing, which his antisocial and single-minded disposition found incomprehensible. The final straw between then really came when Zola used Cezanne as the model for the fictional, bumpkin-like artist Claude Lantier in his novel L’Oevre. The story is about an anti-social and very rude painter (like Cezanne), who thought that he had finally painted a masterpiece. In fact, his picture was so bad that no one wanted to but it. When he finally realises that his work really was rubbish, he hangs himself from spite in front of the painting. Cézanne knew that Zola was mocking the shambles that he had made of his own so thought masterpiece, The Modern Olympia, and he never spoke to the writer again.

During the next 15 years, spent painting in isolation, Cézanne developed his own style. His landscapes from this period, such as The Sea at L’Estaque, contain compositions of large and calm horizons, painted not across the way, as was normal, but with up-and-down strokes which created a flat pattern but also gave a clean sparkling effect on the blue seas which spread across his canvases. Like all his mature landscapes, these paintings have the radically new quality of simultaneously representing a flat design placed within a deep space. Cézanne knew how to portray objects within a 3-dimensional perspective system of solidity and depth but what he was trying to do was to show perspective through colour itself.

Cezanne believed that everything in Nature was modelled after the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder and that all painters should first learn to paint from these simple figures. This is why we see in his work the development of a geometrical, solidified and almost architectural style of painting. Throughout his life he struggled to develop an authentic observation of the seen world by the most accurate method of representing it in paint that he could find. To this end, he structurally ordered whatever he saw into simple forms and colour planes. He said that he wanted to make of his style of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums where he could unite his observation of nature with the permanence of classical composition.

Cézanne also used this in his portraits. Some of the best known are Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Armchair, Woman with a Coffee-Pot, and The Card Players of 1890-92, which he painted 5 times in five different versions. Except for the card-player paintings, in which the sober dignity of the men is well expressed, there is no attempt in Cézanne’s portraits to hint at the sitter’s character. In most cases he treats the background with the same care of detail as the subject and often violently distorts facial colour to bring it in harmony with the colours around it. Cézanne also applied his principles of representation to his still life, of which he painted more than 200 examples where he used real fruit and vegetables except in his flowers which were made of paper. He organized them into abstract patterns, giving the most familiar objects significance and force through the intensity of the colour and the essential simplicity of the form.

Cézanne’s art was also deeply cerebral, a conscious search for intellectual solutions to problems of representation. Although he had great admiration for many other painters, he disagreed with the objectives of all of them bar himself, that is to say; painters who narrated events, or told stories – as the Romantics and the Old Masters, and painters who only represented nature—as the Impressionists did. These styles of art seemed to him to lack a standard of purpose that only his art possessed. At the same time, he was not a truly abstract painter; his works resembled more something like architectural designs or geometrical drawings. The ideas of structure that he wished to express were about reality and not design and in this, he was the major source of inspiration for the later Cubist movement led by Pablo Picasso and George Braque.

After his father’s died in 1886, Cezanne became financially independent and moved with his wife and son into the family residence in Province where, apart from a few visits elsewhere, he stayed for good. In 1895 the art dealer Ambroise Vollard set up the first one-man exhibition of Cézanne’s work of more than 100 canvases, but, although younger artists and some art lovers were beginning to show enthusiasm for his painting, the public remained unreceptive and he sold none. As the 19th century came to a close, Cézanne’s art was increasing in depth, in concentrated richness of colour, and in skill of composition. He still felt capable of creating a new vision and during these years he produced, one after another: 10 variations of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, 3 versions of the Boy in a Red Waist-Coat, countless still-life images, and the Bathers series, in which he attempted to return to the classic tradition of the nude in the landscape.

Cézanne had always found it difficult to get along with people and when his mother died in 1897 he was so upset that he stopped seeing his friends and even his own wife and son. Although he now lived alone like a hermit, by the turn of the century his fame had started to spread, and, since he was rarely seen by anyone, he became something of a legendary figure. He exhibited some of his paintings at the Independent Salon in 1899 and at the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1900, where at last, his works were finally being bought by the galleries. After years of intense study in solitude, Cezanne began to feel that the landscape had become part of him and himself part of the landscape. In the apparent stillness and immobility of the countryside, he seemed to find geologic forces trapped in the rocks, and powerful, rhythmic saps coursing through the trees. With a few light brushstrokes, this sick and misanthropic old man was able to breathe life into the last Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings and the views of his solitary home ‘’The Black House’’.

Cézanne had been suffering for a long time from diabetes and after catching a severe chill while painting out in the fields; he took ill and died in 1906. His work laid the foundations of the change from the 19th century conception of artistic endeavour to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century where he formed the bridge between 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry: that of Cubism.