Paul Cézanne was the preeminent French artist of the Post-Impressionist era. He was widely appreciated toward the end of his life for insisting that painting stays in touch with its material, 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 twentieth-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.

Cézanne is now recognized as the most significant precursor of 20th-century formal abstraction in painting, as he developed a purely pictorial language that balanced analysis with emotion and structure with lyricism. Picasso offered the most succinct assessment of Cézanne’s role for subsequent generations of artists, declaring that he was “the father of us all.”

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Paul Cézanne Biography

Paul Cézanne was born in 1839 in the town of 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. However, notably, the artist remained financially dependent on his family until his father's death in 1886.

He was extremely close friends with Émile Zola, a writer born in Aix and who would later become one of the greatest literary figures of his generation. The adventurous Cézanne and Zola were part of a small circle called "The Inseperables". They moved to Paris together in 1861.

Cezanne painted many self-portraits
Cézanne was no slouch at portraiture, including portraits of himself. | Image courtesy: Prawny on Pixabay

Early Training

Cézanne was largely a self-taught artist. In 1859, he attended evening drawing classes in his native town of Aix. After moving to Paris, Cézanne twice attempted to enter the École des Beaux-Arts but was turned down by the jury. Instead of acquiring professional training, Cézanne frequently visited 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 modest monthly membership fee. While at the Académie, Cézanne met fellow painters Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir, who were also struggling artists but would soon comprise the founding members of the nascent Impressionist movement.

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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. His 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 where he continuously submitted his works. All of his submissions, however, were refused. The artist also traveled 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 abundant sunlight and the vibrancy of colors.

Meanwhile, Pissarro proved instrumental in persuading Cézanne to adopt a brighter palette and 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 just following the artist's father's death. Cézanne painted over forty portraits of his companion and 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 The critics slammed the avant-garde artists, which hurt Cézanne deeply. In the next decade, he mostly painted away from Paris, in either Aix or L'Estaque and no longer participated in unofficial group exhibitions.

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Mature Period

Cézanne's experience with painting from nature and rigorous experimentation led him to develop his own approaches to 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 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 the 1880s, Cézanne executed many 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 to the forms and colors potentially communicated by their surfaces and contours.

Cézanne's portraits, including an extensive body of self-portraits, exhibit the same traits. The compositions are vividly impersonal, for it was not the sitter's character that Cézanne 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 later versions of the Bathers were becoming increasingly abstract regarding 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 to alienating the artist from most of his friends and family.

Cezanne liked to paint still lifes
Cézanne was known to execute expressive still-life paintings. | Image courtesy: Allanos from Pixabay

Paul Cézanne Artwork

Louis-Auguste Cézanne, the Artist's father, Reading “L'Evenement”

This portrait is one of the most renowned early works by Cézanne. The rigid composition is dominated by somber hues applied in a thick impasto.

A Modern Olympia

This composition is Cézanne's adaptation of the theme of the demimondaine, or high-class prostitute suggested in Édouard Manet's scandalous Olympia of 1863. Unlike Manet's treatment, however, Cézanne portrays the prostitute as an awkwardly naked and recoiling figure, setting off the figures of her suitor (completely invisible in Manet's rendering of the subject) and an African chambermaid as transgressing "outsiders."

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The Bay of Marseille, Seen from L'Estaque

In this view of L'Estaque, the artist's palette bursts with a vibrant bouquet of colors previously unseen in his work. The rigid architectonic forms of the houses define the foreground, while the rest of the picture is realized just as "solidly" through the bold blues of the sea and the sky. The complementary colors are skillfully employed by the artist to create an illusion of pictorial depth.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress

This is an example of the many portraits Cézanne painted of his mistress and eventual wife, Hortense Fiquet. Cézanne does not romanticize her form: the sitter's figure is rigidly imposing, almost soldier-like, her face bluntly plain and asymmetrical with only one ear visible.

The Card Players

Cézanne produced his series of Card Player paintings, drawings, and related studies in his ancestral home in the South of France, where he found in the image of men playing cards something timeless, like the mountains cradling an ancient people.

Table, Napkin, and Fruit (A Corner of the Table)

After studying Dutch and French Old Master still life paintings at the Louvre and other Parisian 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 viewer's gaze rises vertically up the canvas rather than plunge deep within any implied corner of a real kitchen.

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Study of Trees

In nearly abstract watercolor landscapes dating from the latter part of his life, Cézanne achieved a perfect balance, or equilibrium, between color, form, and relatively untouched areas of the paper. The brushstrokes seemed to speak visual poetry apart from the painting's subject. In this study of trees, which invariably comes from the long tradition of Japanese woodcuts, Cézanne is moving further toward abstraction by constructing the landscape view through various constellations of color. What seems an "unfinished" composition successfully suggests the feeling of nature without fully representing it, the overall canvas structured by intersecting diagonals that tip and turn out of the picture plane, like leaves shifting in the sunlight.

Mont st Victoire was often a theme for Cezanne
Cézanne painted and repainted Mont St. Victoire. | Image courtesy: orythys on Pixabay

Mont Sainte-Victoire

This is one of the last landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, favored by Cézanne at the end of his life. The view is rendered in what is essentially an abstract vocabulary. Rocks and trees are suggested by mere daubs of paint instead of being extensively depicted. The overall composition itself, however, is representational and also follows the ethos of Japanese prints.

The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers is one of the finest examples of Cézanne's attempt at incorporating the modern, heroic nude in a natural setting. The series of human nudes, no Greco-Roman nymphs or satyrs, are arranged into various positions, like objects of still life, under the pointed arch formed by the intersection of trees and the heavens. The figures are devoid of any particular personality. Here Cézanne is reinterpreting an iconic Western motif of the female nude but in an exceptionally radical way.

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Legacy of Paul Cézanne

Although critical sympathy and public acceptance came to Cézanne only in the last decade of his career, his quest to see through appearances to the logic of underlying formal structure always drew admiration among his colleagues. His hope that his paintings would serve as an education for other artists was achieved when several important painters purchased his work, including Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Kazimir Malevich, and Marcel Duchamp.

A 1907 retrospective showing of his works (56 paintings) was held at the Salon d’Automne in Paris and won considerable acclaim. That same year Picasso created his seminal Demoiselles d’Avignon (“Women of Avignon”), clearly inspired by Cézanne’s groundbreaking Bathers of 1900–05. Indeed, Cézanne’s intellectual approach to formal issues—particularly his spatial explorations—laid the foundation for Picasso and other artists’ subsequent explorations of Cubism. At the same time, his investigations of color and brushstroke influenced Matisse and other Fauve artists in the first decade of the century.

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