Paul Cézanne Biography
Life as an Artist
Paul Cézanne is born on January 19, 1839 in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. It is a provincial town, far from the sophisticated city of Paris.
Cézanne attends school in Aix, receiving high grades in math, Greek, and Latin, but never excelling in drawing or painting. His good friend at school is Émile Zola, who will become a famous French novelist. The two friends spend their summer holidays roaming about the countryside and climbing the rocky slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
Cézanne's father opposes his son's interest in painting. (According to him, messing with charcoal and making daubs on canvas is not an acceptable profession for the son of a prominent banker.) To satisfy his father, Cézanne enrolls in law school but continues to study art at the local drawing academy.
Cézanne abandons his study of law over his father's objections and travels to Paris where his friend Zola now lives. He studies art and visits the Louvre, but in less than a year's time he is discouraged about art and returns home to work in his father's bank.
Cézanne leaves the bank and returns to Paris to take up painting again. His father does not approve, but gives him a comfortable allowance so that he can paint without worrying about supporting himself. This begins a period of restless shuttling back and forth between Paris and the countryside around Aix. "When I was in Aix," he wrote from Paris, "I felt that I should be better off somewhere else; now that I am here, I wish I were in Aix."
In Paris, Cézanne studies and sketches Old Master paintings in the Louvre. He also meets a group of young painters who will become the "Impressionists" (Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas). Cézanne listens to the fervent discussions and rebellious ideas of this young group of "Impressionists" but remains on the outside of the group.
Cézanne accepts the guidance of the kindly Impressionist painter, Pissarro, and begins to paint outdoors. Pissarro teaches Cézanne that if he uses fresh pure colors and applies them in little strokes and patches, the colors will interact and produce the illusion of actual light on the canvas.
Cézanne shows three paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition. People who are used to the dark brown canvases of the Old Masters find the bright sunlit colors of the Impressionists harsh and vulgar. One critic calls a Cézanne landscape "more than we can swallow." The harsh criticism makes Cézanne bitter and resentful. He withdraws into himself, living only for his art.
Instead of reproducing the surface of an object with dots and dashes of color in the Impressionist style, Cézanne explores ways to use his colors and brushstrokes to suggest the solidity and weight of an object. It is a slow, laborious process. Sometimes he stops to think at least 20 minutes between brushstrokes. He says that he looks so intently at his subject that he felt "as if my eyes were bleeding."
By now, Cézanne has given up historical, literary, and religious subject matter in favor of still life, portrait, and landscape paintings.
Still Life Paintings
Cézanne's method is so slow and painstaking that the flowers wilt and the fruits sometimes rot before he is finished.
Cézanne often uses his wife, son, and acquaintances as models because nobody else will agree to sit for the interminable length of time that he requires. (One portrait of an art dealer required 115 sittings.) Cézanne demands that his sitters "sit like an apple" and gets upset if his models make even the slightest motion.
Cézanne leaves his home each day with his paints and canvas strapped to his back. He is especially attracted to a rugged limestone mountain called Mont Sainte-Victoire. He paints the mountain from many different angles. "They are all so varied that I think I could work here for months without moving, except to tilt my head a little to the right and then a little to the left."
CÚzanne has his first one-man exhibition at the Paris gallery of Ambroise Vollard who continues to be an active promoter of his work. CÚzanne continues to sell his paintings and exhibit his work successfully. He enjoys conversing and corresponding with young painters about art. His remarks reveal his ongoing challenges: "The Louvre is a good book to consult but it must be only an intermediary. The real and immense study to be undertaken is the manifold picture of nature." "I work all the time without paying any attention to criticism and the critics, as a real artist should. My work must prove that I am right."
Cézanne is caught in a severe rainstorm after working outdoors on a landscape. He collapses on his way home and is carried home in a laundry cart. He is up the next day trying to paint, but dies seven days later at age 67. During the last year of his life, he writes to his friend, "I am slowly making progress."
An exhibition of Cézanne's watercolors at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris encourages American artists to look to Cézanne's work for inspiration. Later the same year, 56 works by Cézanne are shown at the Salon d'Automne, an annual exhibition in Paris that promotes the innovations of modernism. European and American artists, collectors, and critics are able to view a large group of Cézanne's work.
The Armory Show, a groundbreaking exhibition of modern art in New York City, introduces Cézanne's work to a mass audience in the United States.