Paul Cezanne

French painter, a key figure among those who experienced impressionism and moved on to a more considered and constructive art, and for several reasons seen as the father of modern art. He was born in Aix-en-Provence and, apart from a period (1861-70) in Paris, lived and worked in and near Aix in isolation.

The strength and character of his work began to be recognized during his last years – he exhibited in Vollard’s gallery in 1895 – but his main impact came after his death when two exhibitions in 1907 displayed a wide range of his work, including the large late figure paintings. About the same time Bernard published some of Cezanne’s letters.

Cezanne’s first paintings were scenes of violence and sombre portraits, the former painted loosely, the latter with the palette knife to produce a compacted color surface. In Paris he worked with Pissarro who introduced him to Impressionism. From then on he worked almost always from the model or the motif, returning to the same subjects again and again to capture more completely the complex of his sensations, emotional as well as visual, and construct its parallel on the canvas. He now painted landscapes, still lifts, portraits and occasionally also male or female nude figures in Landscape: these works, studied from models and photographs hut painted in isolation, recall his early passionate scenes but now shunned all hint of action, let alone conflict, and suggest the old dream of a Golden Age when humanity and nature were at one.

His mode of painting varied over the years, from the impressionism learnt from Pissarro to his own characteristic abstracted version of it – abstracted in the sense that he simplified and concentrated colours, regularized brushtrokes to make them into units in a pictorial structure, and represented shapes so as to bring out tensions across space and on the surface of his paintings.

He spoke of wishing to make impressionism into an art like that of the Old Masters, but that misses the core of his ambition, the impossible one of serving both the
complexity of the visual world as experience and art’s call for succinct, reconciled images. As he built with paint, patch beside patch, many of his pictures rook on a mosaic character and his objects a faceted look to which the Cubists responded. But his influence lias been various, so that Braque and Picasso, Matissc, Duchamp, Klee and many others were directly in his debt, also Malevich and the Russian Constructivists, taking from him a range of sometimes contradictory lessons.

Cezanne’s work represented a new way of considering the relationship between the world and the artist, embodying his experience in a third object, the painting. Thus he could serve the development of abstract art as well as art rooted in painstaking observation. He sensed that he had become ‘the primitive of a new art’ before he died. Cezanne’s father, a well-to-do bank manager, had intended his son to follow the same career and put him to law studies.

Cezanne’s friend, the future writer Emile Zola, encouraged his urge for self-expression, and in 1861 Cezanne gave up law for art, to the disapproval of his father whose death subsequently freed him from financial problems. His paintings having been rejected repeatedly by the Salon, Cezanne showed occasionally in the impressionists’ exhibitions of the 1870s and 80s and got single paintings into the Salon of 1882 and the Paris World Fair exhibition in 1889. Few significant artists ever had less success. In addition, Cezanne’s personal life was marked by tensions that sharpened his sensitivity to relationships. Art was a lifeline, an area in which he could know himself, so that his struggle to lay the foundations of an inclusive pictorial procedure can be valued as one particular endeavour seen also in other art forms, for example in the poetry of Rilke, who was deeply influenced by Cezanne, and the prose of Kafka.

His work, having been avidly collected since his death, is found in museums and galleries all over the world. In Paris the Jeu de Paume and Musee d’Orsay offer a broad selection, but the three great Bathers paintings of his last years arc in London (National) and Philadelphia (Museum of Art and Barnes Foundation).

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