The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Paul Cézanne
1839 - 1906


Paul Cézanne who was often called the father of modern art, strove to develop an ideal synthesis of naturalistic representation, personal expression, and abstract pictorial order. Among the artists of his time Cézanne perhaps had the most profound effect on art 20th century. He was greatest single influence both French artist Henri Matissewho admired use color and Spanish Pablo Picasso developeds planar compositional structure into cubist style. During greater part own lifetimehowever largely ignored worked in isolation. mistrusted critics few friendsuntil 1895exhibited only occasionally. alienated even from family found behavior peculiar failed to appreciate revolutionary art.

Early Life and Work

Cézanne was born in the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence, January 19, 1839, the son of a wealthy banker. His boyhood companion was Émile Zola, who later gained fame as a novelist and man of letters. As did Zola, Cézanne developed artistic interests at an early age, much to the dismay of his father. In 1862, after a number of bitter family disputes, the aspiring artist was given a small allowance and sent to study art in Paris, where Zola had already gone. From the start he was drawn to the more radical elements of the Parisian art world. He especially admired the romantic painter Eugène Delacroix and, among the younger masters, Gustave Courbet and the notorious Édouard Manet, who exhibited realist paintings that were shocking in both style and subject matter to most of their contemporaries.

Many of Cézanne's early works were painted in dark tones applied with heavy, fluid pigment, suggesting the moody, romantic expressionism of previous generations. Just as Zola pursued his interest in the realist novel, however, Cézanne also gradually developed a commitment to the representation of contemporary life, painting the world he observed without concern for thematic idealization or stylistic affectation. The most significant influence on the work of his early maturity proved to be Camille Pissarro, an older but as yet unrecognized painter who lived with his large family in a rural area outside Paris. Pissarro not only provided the moral encouragement that the insecure Cézanne required, but he also introduced him to the new impressionist technique for rendering outdoor light. Along with the painters Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and a few others, Pissarro had developed a painting style that involved working outdoors (en plein air) rapidly and on a reduced scale, employing small touches of pure color, generally without the use of preparatory sketches or linear outlines. In such a manner Pissarro and the others hoped to capture the most transient natural effects as well as their own passing emotional states as the artists stood before nature. Under Pissarro's tutelage, and within a very short time during 1872-1873, Cézanne shifted from dark tones to bright hues and began to concentrate on scenes of farmland and rural villages. Return to Aix-en-Provence.

Although he seemed less technically accomplished than the other impressionists, Cézanne was accepted by the group and exhibited with them in 1874 and 1877. In general the impressionists did not have much commercial success, and Cézanne's works received the harshest critical commentary. He drifted away from many of his Parisian contacts during the late 1870s and 1880s and spent much of his time in his native Aix-en-Provence. After 1882, he did not work closely again with Pissarro. In 1886, Cézanne became embittered over what he took to be thinly disguised references to his own failures in one of Zola's novels. As a result he broke off relations with his oldest supporter. In the same year, he inherited his father's wealth and finally, at the age of 47, became financially independent, but socially he remained quite isolated

This isolation and Cézanne's concentration and singleness of purpose may account for the remarkable development he sustained during the 1880s and 1890s. In this period he continued to paint studies from nature in brilliant impressionist colors, but he gradually simplified his application of the paint to the point where he seemed able to define volumetric forms with juxtaposed strokes of pure color. Critics eventually argued that Cézanne had discovered a means of rendering both nature's light and nature's form with a single application of color. He seemed to be reintroducing a formal structure that the impressionists had abandoned, without sacrificing the sense of brilliant illumination they had achieved. Cézanne himself spoke of "modulating" with color rather than "modeling" with dark and light. By this he meant that he would replaced an artificial convention of representation (modeling) with a more expressive system (modulating) that was closer still to nature, or, as the artist himself said, "parallel to nature." For Cézanne, the answer to all the technical problems of impressionism lay in a use of color both more orderly and more expressive than that of his fellow impressionists.

Cézanne's goal was, in his own mind, never fully attained. He left most of his works unfinished and destroyed many others. He complained of his failure at rendering the human figure, and indeed the great figural works of his last years-such as the Large Bathers(circa 1899-1906, Museum of Art, Philadelphia)-reveal curious distortions that seem to have been dictated by the rigor of the system of color modulation he imposed on his own representations. The succeeding generation of painters, however, eventually came to be receptive to nearly all of Cézanne's idiosyncrasies. Cézanne's heirs felt that the naturalistic painting of impressionism had become formularized, and a new and original style, however difficult it might be, was needed to return a sense of sincerity and commitment to modern art.
Significance of Cézanne's Work

For many years Cézanne was known only to his old impressionist colleagues and to a few younger radical postimpressionist artists, including the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and the French painter Paul Gauguin. In 1895, however, Ambroise Vollard, an ambitious Paris art dealer, arranged a show of Cézanne's works and over the next few years promoted them successfully. By 1904, Cézanne was featured in a major official exhibition, and by the time of his death (in Aix-en-Provence on October 22, 1906) he had attained the status of a legendary figure. During his last years many younger artists traveled to Aix-en-Provence to observe him at work and to receive any words of wisdom he might offer. Both his style and his theory remained mysterious and cryptic; he seemed to some a naive primitive, while to others he was a sophisticated master of technical procedure. The intensity of his color, coupled with the apparent rigor of his compositional organization, signaled to most that, despite the artist's own frequent despair, he had synthesized the basic expressive and representational elements of painting in a highly original manner.


Painter. Born January 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence. His father, Philippe Auguste, was the cofounder of a banking firm that prospered throughout the artist's life, affording him financial security that was unavailable to most of his contemporaries and eventually resulting in a large inheritance. In 1852 Paul Cézanne entered the Collège Bourbon, where he met and became friends with Émile Zola. This friendship was decisive for both men: with youthful romanticism they envisioned successful careers in the Paris art world, Cézanne as a painter and Zola as a writer. Consequently, Cézanne began to study painting and drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts in Aix in 1856. His father opposed the pursuit of an artistic career, and in 1858 he persuaded Cézanne to enter law school at the University of Aix. Although Cézanne continued his law studies for several years, he was simultaneously enrolled in the School of Design in Aix, where he remained until 1861.

In 1861 Cézanne finally convinced his father to allow him to go to Paris. He planned to join Zola there and to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts. But his application was rejected and, although he had gained inspiration from visits to the Louvre, particularly from the study of Diego Velázquez and Caravaggio, Cézanne experienced self-doubt and returned to Aix within the year. He entered his father's banking house but continued to study at the School of Design.

The remainder of the decade was a period of flux and uncertainty for Cézanne. His attempt to work in his father's business was abortive, and he returned to Paris in 1862 and stayed for a year and a half. During this period he met Monet and Pissarro and became acquainted with the revolutionary work of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. Paul Cézanne also admired the fiery romanticism of Eugène Delacroix's paintings. But he was never entirely comfortable with Parisian life and periodically returned to Aix, where he could work in relative isolation. He retreated there, for instance, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

Works of the 1860s

Paul Cézanne's paintings from the 1860s are peculiar, bearing little overt resemblance to the artist's mature and more important style. The subject matter is brooding and melancholy and includes fantasies, dreams, religious images, and a general preoccupation with the macabre. His technique in these early paintings is similarly romantic, often impassioned. In the Man in a Blue Cap (also called Uncle Dominique, 1865-1866) pigments have been applied with a palette knife and the surface is everywhere dense with impasto. The same qualities characterize the weird Washing of a Corpse (1867-1869), which seems to picture the events in a morgue and to be a pietà as well.

A fascinating aspect of Cézanne's style in the 1860s is its sense of energy. Although the works are groping and uncertain in comparison to the artist's later expressions, they nevertheless reveal a profound depth of feeling. Each painting seems ready to explode its limits and its surface. Moreover, each seems the conception of an artist who could be either madman or genius. That Cézanne would evolve into the latter, however, can in no way be known from these examples. Nor was it known by many, if any, of his contemporaries. Although Cézanne received encouragement from Pissarro and some of the other impressionists during the 1860s and enjoyed the occasional critical backing of his friend Zola, his pictures were consistently rejected by the annual Salons and frequently inspired more ridicule than did the early efforts of other experimenters in the same generation.

Cézanne and Impressionism

In 1872 Paul Cézanne moved to Pontoise, where he spent 2 years working very closely with Pissarro. During this period Cézanne became convinced that one must paint directly from nature, with the result that romantic and religious subjects began to disappear from his canvases. In addition, the somber, murky range of his palette began to give way to fresher, more vibrant colors.

As a direct result of his stay in Pontoise, Cézanne decided to participate in the first exhibition of the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs in 1874. This historic exhibition, which was organized by radical artists who had been persistently rejected by the official Salons, inspired the term "impressionism"--originally a derogatory expression coined by a newspaper critic. It was the first of eight similar exhibits that took place between 1874 and 1886. After 1874, however, Cézanne exhibited in only one other impressionist show, the third, which was held in 1877 and to which he submitted 16 paintings.

After 1877 Cézanne gradually withdrew from his impressionist colleagues and worked in increasing isolation at his home in southern France. This withdrawal was linked with two factors: first, the more personal direction his work began to take, a direction not basically aligned with that of the other impressionists; second, the disappointing responses which his art continued to generate among the public at large. In fact, Cézanne did not exhibit publicly for almost 20 years after the third impressionist show.

Cézanne's paintings from the 1870s clearly show the influence of impressionism. In the House of the Hanged Man (1873-1874) and the Portrait of Victor Choque (1875-1877) he painted directly from the subject and employed the short, loaded brushstrokes which are characteristic of the style as it was forged by Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. But Cézanne's impressionism never has the delicate look or the sensuous feel that the style has in the hands of its originators. Rather, his impressionism is strained and discomforting, as if he were trying fiercely to coalesce color, brushstroke, surface, and volume into a more tautly unified entity. In the Portrait of Victor Choquet, for instance, the surface is achieved in the face of an obvious struggle: to give each brushstroke parity with the brushstrokes adjacent to it, thereby calling attention to the unity and flatness of the canvas ground; and, at the same time, to present a convincing impression of the sitter's volume and substantiality. Mature impressionism tended to forsake the latter value in favor of the former; Cézanne himself spent most of the 1880s developing a pictorial language which would reconcile both, but for which there was no precedent.

Mature Work

During the 1880s Paul Cézanne saw less and less of his friends, and several personal events affected him deeply. In 1886 he married Hortense Fiquet, a model with whom he had been living for 17 years, and his father died the same year. Probably the most significant event of this year, however, was the publication of the novel L'Oeuvre by his friend Zola. The hero of the story is a painter (generally acknowledged to be a composite of Cézanne and Manet) whom Zola presented as an artistic failure. Cézanne took this presentation as a critical denunciation of his own career and, bitterly hurt, he never spoke to Zola again.

Cézanne's isolation in Aix began to lessen during the 1890s. In 1895, owing largely to the urging of Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir, the dealer Ambroise Vollard showed a large number of Cézanne's paintings, and public interest in his work slowly began to develop. In 1899, 1901, and 1902 the artist sent pictures to the annual Salon des Indépendants in Paris, and in 1904 he was given an entire room at the Salon d'Automne. While painting outdoors in the fall of 1906 Cézanne was overtaken by a storm and became ill. He died in Aix on October 22, 1906. At the Salon d'Automne of 1907 his achievement was honored with a large retrospective exhibition.

Cézanne's paintings from the last three decades of his life established new paradigms for the development of modern art. Working slowly and patiently, he transformed the restless power of his earlier years into the structuring of a pictorial language that has affected almost every radical phase of 20th-century art. This new language is apparent in many works, including the Bay of Marseilles from L'Estaque (1883-1885), Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-1887), the Cardplayers (1890-1892), the White Sugar Bowl (1890-1894), and the Great Bathers (1895-1905).

Each of these works confronts the viewer with its identity as a painting; that is, the images of landscape, still life, or human figure are spread in all directions across the surface so that the surface compels attention in and of itself. The consistency of short, hatched brushstrokes helps to ensure this surface unity. Likewise, individual colors are scattered throughout a given composition, and their repetition generates a color web across the canvas ground. But color and brushstroke serve other ends as well. Cézanne's brush stroke, for instance, is used to model individual masses and spaces as if those masses and spaces were carved out of paint itself. It is these brush strokes which the cubists employed in their analysis of form. And color, while unifying and establishing surface, also tends to generate space and volume, because, as various colors are juxtaposed, some tend to recede into space while others appear to project toward the viewer. What this means is that Cézanne achieves flatness and spatiality at the same time. By calling primary attention to the painting's flatness, however, he denies the possibility that his space or volume can be read as if it were being seen through a window. In other words, his space and volume belong exclusively to the painting medium. Paul Cézanne's insistence on the integrity and uniqueness of painting as a medium has additionally meant that the demands of visible reality must ultimately give way when they meet the demands of the pictorial surface. This was a crucial step in the development of abstract art in the 20th century.










This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008