Paul Cézanne self portrait with bowler hat

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne (January 19 1839—October 22 1906) is a distinctively original artist at the outer edge of the Impressionist season. He is commonly noted as a Post-Impressionist painter and draftsman.

Early life

Cézanne came from a wealthy banker family and studied at the Collége Bourbon of his native city, Aix-en-Provence, where he made the friendship of Émile Zola, his classmate. He then took drawing classes at the city’s École des Beaux-Arts. He pursued an artistic career against his father’s wish that he become a banker (in view of which Cézanne had also studied law for some time).

For the entirety of his life a series of allowances and, finally, a rich inheritance from his father would enable Cézanne to keep on practising his art in the teeth of rejections from the artistic establishment. His patrimony represented an exception among the mostly indigent artists of the alternative, late-19th-century currents.

Paul Cézanne & Camille Pissarro

Paul Cézanne’s acquaintance with Camille Pissarro in 1861 in Paris (destined to last for the rest of his life) led Cézanne to a study of landscapes, with the two painters making countryside expeditions together.

Cézanne considered Pissarro a master, at one point stating that his generation of artists stems from Pissarro. (He also stated that they all had their origin in Eugene Delacroix.) With Pissarro, Cézanne mastered the distinctive landscapist technique of en plein air painting, so dear to the Impressionist movement.

Exhibitions & the Salon

He similarly began seeking luminous colour and the meaningful ephemeral moment. Through Pissarro, Cézanne then entered the Impressionist circle and took part in the improvised inaugural exhibition of 1874. He would take part in their third exhibition as well (1877) before beginning to consciously separate from the Impressionist project and idea from 1879.

Like Édouard Manet, Cézanne all his life actively sought the acceptance of the official Salon. His only success came in 1882, when the mediation of his friend and artist Antoine Guillemet allowed him to exhibit one of his characteristic portraits. He also attracted the sympathy of the art collector Victor Chocquet, a rare commissioner for Cézanne.

Like Manet again, Paul Cézanne suffered the ostentatious ridicule of the urban middle-class public whenever his paintings came to be shown. While the criticism of Manet (for his Luncheon on the Grass, for example) was above all technical and the derision confined to the critics and the exhibition-attending audiences, Cézanne was actively reviled by the people of his home city too, who went so far as to post letters inviting him to go away.

His friendship with Zola may have been affected by Zola’s novel L’Œuvre, fully published in 1886, where the character of a failed artist was modelled in part on Cézanne.

Cézanne & Impressionism

Paul Cézanne: The Pool (1876)
Paul Cézanne: The Pool (1876)

At the middle of his career, Paul Cézanne was being tarred with the charge of Impressionism by that part of the public which employed the term disparagingly against every unconventional artistic style of the age. His esteem was not being helped by the absence of resounding critical appreciation, and his geometric and stain-like style was not particularly attractive on its own.

With respect to this blatant rejection by public opinion, Cézanne evinced a noteworthy endurance. He pursued the development of a personal style based on a series of clear convictions from the time he abandoned the Impressionists till the moment of his premature death in 1906 at the age of 67.

Legacy and impact on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

In the last two decades of his life, Cézanne was widely considered a reference for the younger generation of artists. In the few years before his death, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin purchased one of his paintings while the official Salon gave him an exclusive exhibition.

Cézanne’s painting style

Cézanne distinguished himself from the Impressionists by his keen desire to reintroduce voluminous shapes into paintings inspired by the perceptions of a moment. It was an attempt, as he said, of “treating nature according to the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone”.

This pursuit he believed to be one to the essence of things, which resided in their fundamental shapes and not the subjective impression of their surfaces. He believed such artwork would save itself from the passing fads and earn its place within culture. He stated: “I want to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums”.

In his approach to the vision of objects, Cézanne was influenced by the empiricist discussions of Hippolyte Taine and by the novelty of stereoscopy. From the latter he appears to have received the idea of representing the depth of objects as if they were seen from a dual perspective, thus sidestepping the traditional conception of a single-point perspective as exemplified by the Renaissance masters.

In his attempt to overcome subjectivism, Paul Cézanne aspired to materialise the essential shapes and colours of objects. The empiricist assumption at the bottom of this attempt is to be found in Taine, but further on it resides in the doctrine of the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who held that the impression of space was a secondary and illusory datum instinctively deduced from the primary data of vision.

While Cézanne’s artistic attempt was, in one way, overcoming the idea that subjective impressions stand for the authentic reality, he was at the same time (and perhaps unknowingly) challenging the Berkeleyian conclusion that anything like the authentic reality can even be apprehended by human subjects.

Cézanne’s painting subjects

Paul Cézanne: Trees in the Park (1885–1887)

Cézanne’s choice of subject matter was limited. It was still lives, landscapes, and portraits, with the depiction of outdoor scenes sometimes including human subjects. His almost uninterrupted residence in France, his relative exclusion from most artistic circles and happenings, and the inability to regularly find models (especially ones in the nude) circumscribed his possibilities.

His collection of portraits eventually came to depict all of the people close to him, just like the objects he reproduced in his paintings and drawings were chiefly those of his immediate surroundings.

Cézanne often grieved over what he perceived as the incurable imperfection of his paintings. His Impressionist touches combined with stark geometries appeared sometimes to result in incompleteness and irregularity. But more significantly, he struggled to recognise when the authentic object of his vision had materialised on the canvas. Cézanne’s very struggle may be said to represent a discussion of Berkley.

The Bathers (1905)

Paul Cézanne- The Large Bathers
Paul Cézanne- The Large Bathers

In French Les Grandes Baigneuses, it is the most familiar of Cézanne’s paintings from his bathers series. Cézanne considered it unfinished, after working on it for seven years.

A vast group of female bathers is depicted in the foreground while another figure swims in the water beyond and two more stand on the opposite bank (seventeen bathers in all). The main group, with their elongated shapes, are almost entirely symmetrically arranged along two oblique lines traced by the curving trees behind them and centred upon a median axis. While one half inclines rightward and the other leftward, they are mostly enclosed within the space beneath the trees as if under a vault.

The precursors to these “Large Bathers” are the oils of 1894-1905 and 1900-1905, both representing a gathering of female bathers symmetrically placed and oriented. By using only green, ochre, blue, and red, Cézanne accomplished a peculiar chromatic equilibrium. Having depicted in The Bathers of 1890 his last batch of male bathers, for the rest of his life Cézanne focused on the female subject.

The Card Players (1895)

Paul Cézanne- The Card Players (1895)
Paul Cézanne- The Card Players (1895)

One of Cézanne’s most recognised paintings, and briefly the world’s most expensive painting after a version of it was purchased by the Royal Family of Qatar in 2011 for $250 million, The Card Players is a series of paintings depicting Provençal peasants.

In this character study of composition, we observe Cézanne experimenting with four and five human subjects in a single, symmetrically structured scene before deciding on what appears to be an essential form: two card players, virtually absent surroundings, intensely absorbed in their game. An unobtrusive glass occupies part of the wall beyond them, conferring depth without adding any substantial content. Before lighting upon the glass, Cézanne had tried out a wider canvas and the addition of a cross-armed onlooker with his back to the wall for the same effect.

If it brings to mind Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Degas’ Absinthe Drinker — both deeply impressionistic portrayals of individuals in public indoors — Cézanne’s composition has no Impressionist effect.

The glass is communicatively dumb, the bareness of the human shapes is reminiscent of dummies, and every object on the scene displays the harsh geometry of its structure: the square table and the square cloth, the cylindric bottle, the ticket-like playing cards, the truncated spheres and cylinders inscribed in the player’s hats and coats.

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