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Paul Cézanne


Self-Portrait, 1878-80


CFGA - Paul Cézanne
WebMuseum: Cézanne, Paul
Meyer Shapiro on Cézanne

The French painter Paul Cézanne is regarded today as one of the great forerunners of modern painting, both for the way that he evolved of putting down on canvas exactly what his eye saw in nature and for the qualities of pictorial form that he achieved through a unique treatment of space, mass, and color. Cézanne was a contemporary of the impressionists, but he went beyond their interests in the individual brushstroke and the fall of light onto objects, to create, in his words, "something more solid and durable, like the art of the museums."

Among the artists of his time, Cézanne 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 color, and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who developed Cézanne's planar compositional structure into the cubist style. During the greater part of his own lifetime, however, Cézanne 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.

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, Pierre 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 1872-73, Cézanne 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, 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 '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, 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 '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 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 replace 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.

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.

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