The French painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was one of the most important figures in the development of modern painting. In particular, the evolution of cubism and abstraction was largely due to his innovations.
During the second half of the 19th century French impressionism created a dramatic break with the art of the past. In conception and appearance the style was radically new and, although it initially inspired public ridicule, it soon affected nearly every ambitious artist in western Europe. The new vision emerged during the 1870s, chiefly in the art of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. For each of these artists impressionism was an illusionistic style which differed from the tradition of Renaissance illusionism in its greater emphasis upon vibrant, natural color and on an immediate confrontation with the phenomena of the visible world.
As the style developed during the 1880s, however, it increasingly became characterized by paintings which were flat rather than illusionistic. In other words, the impressionists' insistence upon a direct application of pigment to canvas resulted in surfaces which declared themselves first of all as surfaces—and, consequently, in paintings which declared themselves first of all as paintings rather than as windows which looked out upon the natural world.
The tendency toward flatness persisted into the last years of the 19th century, its pervasiveness giving the impression that illusionistic space—fought for, won, and defended since the very beginning of the Renaissance—had finally been sacrificed by the medium of painting. Paul Cézanne worked within and finally emerged from this trend. As a painter, he matured slowly, his greatest works coming during the last 25 years of his life. During this period he scored a remarkable and heroic achievement: he restored to painting the space and volume that had seemingly been lost to it. But he did it in a totally unprecedented way: not by return to the illusionism of the past but by the creation of a spatial illusionism that did not violate flatness.
Cézanne was born on Jan. 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence. His father, Philippe Auguste, was the cofounder of a banking firm which 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 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. 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
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 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 which 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 Choquet (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.
During the 1880s 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 Oct. 22, 1906. At the Salon d'Automne of 1907 his achievement was honored with a large retrospective exhibition.
Cézanne's paintings from the last 2 1/2 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. 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.
Further Reading on Paul Cézanne
There are many important books dealing with Cézanne. Two early studies are particularly crucial: Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927), and Lionello Venturi, Cézanne: Son Art—Son Oeuvre, in French (2 vols., 1936). All recent studies have had to deal directly with these two seminal works. Two excellent monographs are John Rewald, Paul Cézanne: A Biography (1936; trans. 1948), and Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cézanne (1952). A work which probes Cézanne's psychological motivations is Jack Lindsay, Cézanne: His Life and Art (1969). For Cézanne's drawings see Alfred Neumeyer, Drawings (1958). A comprehensive view of impressionism and Cézanne's relation to the movement is John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1946; rev. ed. 1961).