Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) Born January 19 in Aix-en-Provence, France
The most seductive thing about art is the personality of the artist himself – Paul Cézanne
Cézanne was best known for his incredibly varied painting style, which greatly influenced 20th century abstract art. Both Matisse and Picasso are said to have remarked that Cézanne “is the father of us all.” No small compliment.
In 1943, Pablo Picasso declared to photographer George Brassaï that artist Paul Cézanne was “my one and only master.”
The seminal moment for Picasso was the Cézanne retrospective held at the Salon d’Automne one year after the artist’s death in 1906. Though he previously had been familiar with Cézanne, it was not until the retrospective that Picasso experienced the full impact of his artistic achievement. As he later put it: “Cézanne’s influence gradually flooded everything.”
Cézanne early recognized the limitations of the Impressionists in their adherence to “honoring the eye” and reacted by constructing a new artistic vocabulary that synthesized reality and abstraction, the backbone of early Modernism. He also revitalized the classical concept of the nude. In 1899, Henri Matisse purchased Cézanne’s small painting called Three Bathers (1879-82) from Vollard; it remained with him for three decades as a teaching model.
The work’s significance lies in its demotion of the nude to an earthbound status that would eventually reach the peak of its final metamorphosis in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). A comparative study of Picasso and Cézanne is not new. Imagine how many Ph.D. theses had been devoted to the topic.
Cézanne set up his still lifes with great care. A testimony by an acquaintance describes his method of preparing a still life: “No sooner was the cloth draped on the table with innate taste than Cézanne set out the peaches in such a way as to make the complementary colors vibrate, grays next to reds, yellows to blues, leaning, tilting, balancing the fruit at the angles he wanted, sometimes pushing a onesous or two-sous piece [French coins] under them. You could see from the care he took how much it delighted his eye” (But when he began to paint, the picture might change in unusual ways. Cézanne seems to be painting from several different positions at once. He believed that the beauty of the whole painting was more important than anything else—even more important than the correctness of the rendering (Robert Burleigh, Paul Cézanne: A Painter’s Journey [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006], p. 18).
Inevitably, we see him as the point where modern art began: so the first room of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in its current hang, gives us a Gauguin and three Seurats on the left; outnumbering them, on the right and straight ahead, are half a dozen Cézannes. But, just as inevitably, in his own time they could see more clearly where he came from than where he would lead. So a friendly critic called him “a Greek of the Belle Époque”. Renoir said that his landscapes had the balance of Poussin, while the colours in his “Bathers” “seem to have been taken from ancient earthenware”. Cézanne, like all serious members of any artistic avant-garde, was constantly learning from previous masters, studying Rubens all his life. And while we might admire his daring fragmentations of vision, what the painter himself sought was “harmony”, which was nothing to do with “finish” or “style”.