French Draftsman and Painter
Born: January 19, 1839 - Aix-en-Provence, France
Died: October 22, 1906 - Aix-en-Provence, France
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Whoever in dismay before the strangeness of certain contemporary works denies to the original painting of our time a sufficient significance and longs for an art with noble and easily-read figures and gestures, should return to Cezanne and ask what in the appeal of his 'weighty art' depends on a represented human drama."
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"I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you"
Paul Cézanne was the preeminent French artist of the Post-Impressionist era, widely appreciated toward the end of his life for insisting that painting stay in touch with its material, if not virtually sculptural origins. Also known as the "Master of Aix" after his ancestral home in the South of France, Cézanne is credited with paving the way for the emergence of twenthieth-century modernism, both visually and conceptually. In retrospect, his work constitutes the most powerful and essential link between the ephemeral aspects of Impressionism and the more materialist, artistic movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and even complete abstraction.
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Table, Napkin, and Fruit (A Corner of the Table) (1895-1900)
After studying Dutch and French Old Master still life painting at the Musée du Louvre and other Paris galleries, Cézanne formulated his own semi-sculptural approach to still lifes. Typically strewn across an upturned tabletop, Cézanne's pears, peaches, and other pictorial elements seem at once to rest on a solid, wooden plank and yet float across the surface of the canvas like a new kind of calligraphy. As if to press home that point, Cézanne typically includes chairs, wooden screens, water pitchers, and wine bottles to suggest that the gaze of the viewer rise vertically up the canvas, rather than plunge deep within any implied corner of a real kitchen.
Oil on canvas, 47 x 56 cm (18 1/4 x 22 in) - The Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania
Paul Cézanne was born on January 19, 1839 in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. His father was a wealthy lawyer and banker who strongly encouraged Paul to follow in his footsteps. Cézanne's eventual rejection of his authoritative father's aspirations led to a long, problematic relationship between the two, although, notably, the artist remained financially dependent on his family until his father's death in 1886.
Cézanne was largely a self-taught artist. In 1859, he attended evening drawing classes in his native town of Aix. After moving to Paris in 1861, Cézanne twice attempted to enter the École des Beaux-Arts, but was turned down by the jury. Instead of acquiring professional training, Cézanne made frequent visits to the Musée de Louvre, where he copied works by Titian, Rubens, and Michelangelo. He also regularly visited the Académie Suisse, a studio where young art students could draw from the live model for a very modest monthly membership fee. While at the Académie, Cézanne met fellow painters Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir, who were at that time also struggling artists, but who would soon comprise the founding members of the nascent Impressionist movement.
The early oils of Cézanne were executed in a rather somber palette. The paint was often applied in thick layers of impasto, adding a sense of heaviness to already solemn compositions. Cézanne's early painting indicated a focus on color in favor of well-delineated silhouettes and perspectives preferred by the French Academy and the jury of the annual Salon.
While in Paris, Cézanne continuously submitted his works for exhibition at the Salon. All of his submissions, however, were refused. The artist also travelled regularly back to Aix to secure funding from his disapproving father.
The year 1870 marked a crucial shift in Cézanne's painting which was occasioned by two factors: the artist's move to L'Estaque in the South of France to avoid the military draft, and his closer association with one of the most distinguished young Impressionists - Camille Pissarro. Cézanne was fascinated with the Mediterranean landscape of L'Estaque, with its abundance of sunlight, and the vibrancy of colors. Pissarro proved instrumental in persuading Cézanne to adopt a brighter palette, as well as to abandon the heavy and ponderous impasto technique in favor of smaller and livelier brushstrokes. In L'Estaque, Cézanne executed a series of landscapes dominated by the architectonic forms of the rural houses, the dazzling blues of the sea, and the vivacious greens of the foliage.
In 1872, Cézanne returned to Paris, where his son Paul was born. His mistress, Hortense Fiquet, would finally become Madame Cézanne in 1886, notably following the artist's father's death. Cézanne painted over forty portraits of his companion, as well as several enigmatic portraits of their son.
In 1873, Cézanne exhibited in the Salon des Réfuses, the notorious show of artists who had been refused by the official Salon (Cézanne could count himself among a circle including Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro, among others). The critics slammed the avant-garde artists, which apparently hurt Cézanne deeply. In the next decade he mostly painted away from Paris, in either Aix or L'Estaque, and he no longer participated in unofficial group exhibitions.
Cézanne's experience with painting from nature led him to develop his own theory of art. He strove to depart from the portrayal of the transient moment, long favored by the Impressionists; instead, Cézanne sought true and permanent pictorial qualities of objects around him. According to Cézanne, the subject of the painting was first to be "read" by the artist through the understanding of its essence. Then, in the second stage, this essence must be "realized" on a canvas through forms, colors, and their spatial relations. The colors and forms thus became the dominant elements of his compositions, completely freed from the rigid rules of perspective and paint application as promoted by the Academy.
Depicting reality as such was never Cézanne's primary objective. In his own words, it was "something other than reality" that he endeavored to reveal.
In Cezanne's mature work, the colors and forms possessed equal pictorial weight. The primary means of constructing the new perspective included the juxtaposition of cool and warm colors as well as the bold overlapping of forms. The light was no longer an "outsider" in relation to depicted objects; rather light emanated from within. Instead of the illusion, he searched for the essence. Instead of the three-dimensional artifice, he longed for the two-dimensional truth.
These principles of painting were also applied to still lifes and portraits. In the 1880's, Cezanne executed a large number of still lifes, completely reinventing the genre in the two-dimensional mode. The central feature of these still lifes was the crucial shift of attention from the objects themselves, to the forms and colors that were potentially communicated by their surfaces and contours. This radical liberation of form and color from their carrier, the object itself, directly precipitated the basic principles of Cubism, Expressionism, and later experimentations with various degrees of abstraction.
Cezanne's portraits, including an extensive body of self-portraits, exhibit the same set of traits. The compositions are vividly impersonal, for it was not the sitter's character that Cezanne struggled to depict but the formal and coloristic possibilities of the human body and its interior nature.
Late Period and Death
In the last decade of his life, Cézanne limited his artistic pursuits almost exclusively to two pictorial motifs. One was the depiction of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, a dramatic mountain that dominated the parched and stony landscape at Aix. The other was the final synthesis of nature and the human body in a series of so-called Bathers (nudes depicted frolicking in a landscape). The latest of the Bathers were becoming increasingly abstract in regard to how form and color seemed to fuse together on the canvas.
After contracting pneumonia, Paul Cézanne died in his familial house in Aix on October 22, 1906. The last decade of his life had been marred by the development of diabetes and severe depression, which contributed toward alienating the artist from most of his friends and family.
When looking at Cézanne's late work, it is impossible to miss the emergence of a unique artistic approach. The rules of the Academy completely abandoned, and the aesthetics of Impressionism having been successfully employed but not copied, Cézanne offered a new way of comprehending the world through art. With his reputation evolving steadily in the late years of his life, an increasing number of young artists fell under the influence of his innovative vision. Among them was the young Pablo Picasso, who would soon steer the Western tradition of painting into yet another new and utterly unprecedented direction. It was Cézanne who taught the new generation of artists to liberate form from color in their art, thus creating a new and subjective pictorial reality, not merely a slavish imitation. The influence of Cézanne continued well into the 1930s and 1940s, when a new artistic manner was coming to fruition - that of Abstract Expressionism.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Ivan Savvine
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Paul Cézanne
| Defining Modern Art |
Take a look at the big picture of modern art, and Cézanne's role in it.
| Cézanne |
By Meyer Schapiro
| Cézanne : A Biography |
By John Rewald
| Cézanne |
By Ambroise Vollard
| The Official Website of Atelier Cézanne Museum |
The artist's house in Aix-en-Provence
| Paul Cézanne |
Metropolitan Museum's of Art Timeline of Art History
| Paul Cézanne: The Master of Us All |
By Lacayo, Richard
| Maverick, You Cast a Giant Shadow |
By Rosenberg, Karen
| A Post-Impressionist and His American Imitators |
By Ken Johnson
| Discussion of Route Tournante painting by Paul Cézanne |
Author Colm Tóibín discusses artist and painting
| The protagonist of Emile Zola's "Masterpiece" |