In his quest to capture the distinctive light of southern France, PAUL CÉZANNE paved the way for modern art. Zoë McIntyre sketches the life of an artist born 175 years ago
Paul Cézanne was born in the southern town of Aix-en-Provence on 19 January 1839. A shy, restless child, he met the future novelist Émile Zola at school and the pair formed a friendship that lasted into adulthood. Under pressure from his father, a wealthy banker, Cézanne trained as a lawyer while taking drawing lessons at a local academy. In 1861, he abandoned law and followed Zola to Paris to pursue his aspirations as an artist. Although his father at first objected to his career choice, he eventually acquiesced and granted Cézanne a hefty inheritance of 400,000 francs.
In Paris, Cézanne was drawn to radical figures in the bohemian art world; he admired the fierce Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix and the revolutionary realism of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. In his early career, Cézanne focused on portraits, set in everyday surroundings, choosing dark, brooding tones applied with thick slab-like paint – a far cry from his later light-filled masterpieces.
Cézanne’s most influential connection was with the Impressionist painter Camille Pisarro, who introduced the young painter to the joys of working en plein air. Together, they would travel to the capital’s rural outskirts of Pontoise and Louveciennes, where Cézanne learned to work with transient natural light effects and began to apply small touches of pure colour. By 1873, he had traded his murky shades for a more vibrant palette, finding his primary inspiration in capturing visions of nature.
This artistic development did little to earn him commercial success. His annual submissions to the official Paris Salon from 1864 to 1869 were all rejected. When he exhibited alongside the Impressionist painters in 1874 and 1877, it was Cézanne’s experimental work that attracted the harshest criticism. Shunned by the art world, he became tormented by self-doubt and did not exhibit again publically for nearly 20 years. Withdrawing from Paris, he spent much of his time as a recluse in his home town of Aix. There, he concentrated on a few basic subjects: still lifes, bathers and views of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire became recurrent themes. In 1886, he married his long-term partner Hortense Fiquet, but severed ties with Zola after the publication of the latter’s novel L’Oeuvre, in which the main character – a failing artist – is said to have been based on Cézanne. Offended by what he saw as a denunciation of his career, Cézanne never spoke to his childhood friend again.
Cézanne finally got his big break in 1895, at the age of 56, when Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard exhibited a selection of his paintings. The show won public acclaim and young artists began travelling to Aix to visit Cézanne’s workshop and observe him painting. In 1905 the Salon d’Automne in Paris dedicated an entire room to his work.
Cézanne continued painting into the last days of his life. In 1906, while painting outdoors, he was caught in heavy rain and contracted pneumonia. He died a few days later on 22 October and was buried in Aix. A year later, a retrospective of his work was held at the Grand Palais in Paris. While Cézanne spent much of his life in obscurity, his artistic legacy was monumental. His choice of subjects, colour harmonies and stylistic techniques moved away from 19th-century traditions and had a profound influence on the next generation of artists, including Picasso, Braque and Matisse, and the Fauvist and Cubist movements as a whole. Cézanne’s influence was acknowledged by Picasso who described him as “father of us all”.
Cézanne’s atelier, just outside Aix-en-Provence, has been meticulously preserved and visitors can see his painting tools and objects recognisable from his paintings still in place (tel: (Fr) 4 42 21 06 53, www.atelier-cezanne.com).
On 31 December 1999, thieves took advantage of the Millennium celebrations to break into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and steal Cézanne’s landscape painting Vue d’Auvers-sur-Oise. Valued at around £3 million, the work is still missing.
Cézanne was such a slow and painstaking painter that the fruit being depicted in his still lifes would often be rotten by the time the piece was finished.
Mont Sainte-Victoire featured in Cézanne’s paintings a total of 87 times.
In 2012, the rulers of Qatar bought Les Joueurs de Cartes (The Card Players) for £160 million, a record price for a work of art.
The most recent biography of the artist is Cézanne: A Life, by Alex Danchev (Profile Books, £30).