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Paul Cézanne

(1839—1906) French painter

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French painter, a figure of central importance in the development of 20th-century art. He was born in Aix-en-Provence, the son of a hat dealer who became a prosperous banker, and his financial security enabled him to survive the indifference to his work that lasted until the final decade of his life. Much of his early career was spent in Paris in the circle of the Impressionists (he participated in the first and third of their eight group exhibitions), but after the death of his father in 1886 and his inheritance of the family estate (the Jas de Bouffan, which figures in many of his paintings), Cézanne lived mainly in Aix. His goal, in so far as he verbalized it, was to create an art combining the classical tradition of formal structure with a rigorous honesty about perception, and he summed up this aim in two much-quoted remarks: that it was his ambition ‘to do Poussin again after nature’ and that he wanted to make of Impressionism ‘something solid and enduring like the art of the museums’. He devoted himself mainly to certain favourite themes—portraits of his wife, Hortense, still-lifes, and above all the landscape of Provence, particularly the Mont Sainte-Victoire (in 1896 he remarked ‘When one was born down there…nothing else seems to mean anything’). His painstaking analysis of nature differed fundamentally from Monet's exercises in painting repeated views of objects such as Haystacks or Poplars. Cézanne was interested in underlying structure, and his paintings rarely give any obvious indication of the time of day or even the season represented. The third dimension is created less through perspective or foreshortening than by precise variations of tonality; by ordinary standards the paintings appear distorted in the cause of pictorial balance, although prolonged acquaintance reveals a precision of observation and attention to perception found in few other painters. In his final decade his work included three large pictures of Bathers (female nudes in a landscape setting) that are among his greatest and most radical achievements. The first two (Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, and NG, London) were probably begun in about 1895 and 1900 respectively and worked on intermittently up to his death; the third (Philadelphia Museum of Art) was perhaps entirely painted in 1906. In these majestic works he sacrificed anatomical accuracy for pictorial structure, the simplified forms of the figures echoing the broad sweeps of the tree trunks.

Cézanne worked in comparative obscurity until he was given a one-man show in Paris by Ambroise Vollard in 1895. It made little impact on the public but excited many younger artists, and because Cézanne was rarely seen he began to acquire a legendary reputation. By the end of the century he was revered as the ‘Sage’ by many of the avant-garde and in 1904 the Salon d'Automne gave him a special exhibition. A memorial exhibition of his work at the same venue in 1907, the year after his death, was a major factor in the genesis of Cubism, and his subsequent influence has been profound, varied, and enduring. For Braque and Picasso he showed a way of combining indications of depth with absolute respect for the integrity of the picture plane. Less bold contemporaries such as Derain and Friesz were still enormously influenced by his modelling with colour, which was a key factor in their development from Fauvism to a more solidly constructed kind of painting. For the Neoclassicists of the 1920s, with their ‘Return to Order’ agenda, which was not without a nationalist and conservative streak, it was Cézanne who was most impressive for his monumentality. For Mondrian the broken slabs of colour in Cézanne were a tool for reaching abstract art. A radically different view of Cézanne was proposed by Barnett Newman. He argued that Cézanne was a complete Impressionist who insisted, more than any other, on his ‘full dependence on sensation’. He argued that the other Impressionists maintained that the edges of objects were illusory, and that therefore they should not be represented, but that for Cézanne, this illusion was part of his sensation and so must be painted as sensation. ‘Has no one ever looked at his watercolours, where the entire picture is the study of the representation of an edge?’ (Art News, 1951; reprinted in Selected Writings and Interviews, 1990).


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