Sunday, 20 January 2013


“The most seductive thing about art is the personality of the artist himself.” - Paul Cezanne

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was a French painter who is often called the father of modern art. He strove to develop an ideal combination of naturalistic representation, personal expression, and abstract pictorial order. Among the artists of his time, Cezanne perhaps has had the most profound effect on the art of the 20th century. He was the greatest single influence on both the French artist Henri Matisse, who admired his use of colour, and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who developed Cezanne’s planar compositional structure into the cubist style. During the greater part of his own lifetime, however, Cezanne was largely ignored, and he worked in isolation. He mistrusted critics, had few friends, and, until 1895, exhibited only occasionally. He was alienated even from his family, who found his behavior peculiar and failed to appreciate his revolutionary art.

Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, on January 19, 1839. His family was well-to-do and his father was a successful banker. His boyhood companion was Émile Zola, who later gained fame as a novelist and man of letters. As did Zola, Cezanne 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 Cezanne'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, Cezanne also gradually developed a commitment to the representation of contemporary life, painting the world he observed without concern for thematic idealisation or stylistic affectation. The most significant influence on the work of his early maturity proved to be Camille Pissarro, an older but as yet unrecognised painter who lived with his large family in a rural area outside Paris.

Pissarro not only provided the moral encouragement that the insecure Cezanne 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 colour, 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, Cezanne shifted from dark tones to bright hues and began to concentrate on scenes of farmland and rural villages.

Although he seemed less technically accomplished than the other impressionists, Cezanne was accepted by the group and exhibited with them in 1874 and 1877. In general, the impressionists did not have much commercial success, and Cezanne’s works received the harshest critical commentary. He drifted away from many of his Parisian contacts during the late 1870s and ‘80s and spent much of his time in his native Aix-en-Provence. After 1882, he did not work closely again with Pissarro. In 1886, Cezanne 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 Cezanne’s concentration and singleness of purpose may account for the remarkable development he sustained during the 1880s and ‘90s. 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 Cezanne had discovered a means of rendering both nature’s light and nature’s form with a single application of colour.

He seemed to be reintroducing a formal structure that the impressionists had abandoned, without sacrificing the sense of brilliant illumination they had achieved. Cezanne himself spoke of “modulating” with colour rather than “modelling” with dark and light. By this he meant that he would replace an artificial convention of representation (modelling) with a more expressive system (modulating) that was closer still to nature, or, as the artist himself said, “parallel to nature”. For Cezanne, the answer to all the technical problems of impressionism lay in a use of colour both more orderly and more expressive than that of his fellow impressionists.

Cezanne'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 rigour of the system of colour modulation he imposed on his own representations. The succeeding generation of painters, however, eventually came to be receptive to nearly all of Cezanne’s idiosyncrasies. Cezanne’s heirs felt that the naturalistic painting of impressionism had become formularised, and a new and original style, however difficult it might be, was needed to return a sense of sincerity and commitment to modern art.

For many years Cezanne was known only to his old impressionist colleagues and to a few younger radical post-impressionist 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 Cezanne’s works and over the next few years promoted them successfully. By 1904, Cezanne 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 colour, coupled with the apparent strictness of his compositional organisation, signalled to most that, despite the artist’s own frequent despair, he had synthesised the basic expressive and representational elements of painting in a highly original manner.

In the painting above, “Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine” (ca 1887), at the Courtauld Institute of Art, we have a favourite theme of Cezanne’s The Montagne Sainte-Victoire is a mountain in southern France, overlooking Aix-en-Provence. It became the subject of a number of many of Cézanne’s paintings. In these paintings, Cézanne often sketched the railway bridge on the Aix-Marseille line at the Arc River Valley in the center on the right side of the picture. Especially, in Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1885–1887), he depicted a moving train on this bridge. Only half a year after the opening of the Aix-Marseille line on October 15, 1877, in a letter to Émile Zola dated April 14, 1878, Cézanne praised the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he viewed from the train while passing through the railway bridge at Arc River Valley, as a “beau motif (beautiful motif)”, and, in about that same year, he began the series wherein he topicalised this mountain.

1 comment:

  1. Not a nice man, but ohhh what an artist!

    Towards the end of his quite long life, Cezanne was featured in a major official exhibition. But I am not sure that he attained the status of a legendary figure in the two years between the 1904 exhibition and his 1906 death.

    It was his retrospective show in 1907 that blew the socks off the next generation of modernists - the cubists, the artists moving towards abstraction, the fauvists etc. Young artists started flocking to Mont Sainte-Victoire, even after the end of WW1.