Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Born: January 19, 1839
Biography of Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was probably the greatest painter of the last 100 years. He was born in Aix-en-Provence, France, the son of a wealthy banker and tradesman, and was educated at the College Bourbon where he became friendly with author Émile Zola. The friendship, which meant a great deal to Cézanne, lasted until the publication of Zola’s L’oeuvre in 1886: the character of Claude Lantier seemed a travesty of Cézanne, and not only to Cézanne.
In 1861, after abandoning the study of law, Cézanne went to Paris, where he met Pissarro and from 1862 he devoted himself to painting living in Paris until 1870. The Franco-Prussian War drove him to L’Estaque and in 1872 he joined Pissarro at Pontoise. In the 1860s, his ardent Southern temperament expressed itself in a series of more or less erotic and melodramatic pictures such as the Rape (1867) or the Murder (Liverpool) of similar date which were not unnaturally received with no enthusiasm. While closely associated with Pissarro, Cézanne began to paint landscape in an Impressionist technique and he exhibited at the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874.
One of his pictures was among those that incurred the greatest public displeasure. This was the most extraordinary of all his erotic fantasies, the Modern Olympia (now in the Louvre), so called as a rather dubious compliment to Manet: it represents a fat squatting female being disrobed by a negress while a man (probably Cézanne himself) watches, with interest. In the midst of the chaste Impressionist landscapes the effect must have been startling, particularly as these pictures are painted with great violence and the color is often piled on with a palette knife.
During the 1870s, Cézanne digested the theories of color and light which the Impressionists were then developing: in the 3rd Impressionist Exhibition (1817) he showed sixteen pictures and one critic praised them highly. Gradually, he calmed down the exuberant Romanticism of his temperament and abandoned a Delacroix-like technique, to which he was not really suited. His great achievements lay in the direction of an ever more subtle analysis of color and tone, totally different from the Impressionists’ analysis in that they sought to capture the surface, the impression, and therefore painted quickly. Cézanne’s analysis was infinitely prolonged and laborious because he sought to use color as a means of modeling and as the ultimate expression of the underlying forms of visible objects. In this he was, of course, following classical prototypes and some of his recorded sayings are of great importance. He said that he “wanted to do Poussin again, from Nature” and that he wanted “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the Museums”. This was clearly because Impressionism was lacking in formal qualities, but “when color has its greatest richness then form has its plenitude”: in particular, the basic ideas of Cubism have been claimed to be implicit in his teaching that the painter ought to look for the cone, the sphere, and the cylinder in Nature.
Cézanne himself was no theorist and constant insults from public and critics made him very chary of exposing himself. When his father died in 1886, he found himself rich and able to live in seclusion in Provence, mainly at the Jas de Bouffan, near Aix, a house his father had bought and which once contained some very early Cézanne decorations. In 1890, he was invited to exhibit in Brussels by Les XX, in 1895 he had his first big show, and from about 1900 his genius was fairly widely recognized.
In the last years of his life he returned to some of his favorite early themes – in particular, the big compositions of Bathers, with nude figures in a landscape setting. His great contribution was to show that color and tone values must be considered as one thing and not two; in doing this, he made Impressionism into something solid, like Poussin. Because his analysis was pursued with agonizing care many of his pictures were never finished, he is said to have abandoned a portrait of Vollard the dealer, after more than a hundred sittings, with the remark that he was displeased with the shirt-front! Naturally, still-life and landscape offered the greatest freedom in this respect and most of his flower pieces were probably painted from artificial flowers; his few portraits were of himself or of people whose sittings could be protracted almost indefinitely.