• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Under Cézanne’s Spell

Cézanne 1995—January 7, 1996; Tate Gallery, London, February 8—April 28, 1996; Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 30—August 18, 1996

an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, September 25,, Catalog of the exhibition by Françoise Cachin, by Joseph J. Rishel
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 599 pp., 350 FF

Cézanne: A Biography

by John Rewald
Abrams, 288 pp., $75.00

Paul Cézanne: The Bathers

by Mary Louise Krumrine
Thames and Hudson, 321 pp., $65.00

Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne

by Philip Callow
Ivan R. Dee, 395 pp., $30.00


by Richard Verdi
Thames and Hudson, 216 pp., $12.95 (paper)


by Philippe Dagen
Flammarion, 174 pp., 98 FF

Le Paradis de Cézanne

by Philippe Sollers
Gallimard, 151 pp., 250 FF


Paul Cézanne, born in 1839, was the only artist of his age to span several generations in order to become, so to speak, an honorary twentieth-century painter. The Fauve painters, who launched the first visual movement of the century, were inspired by Cézanne and came increasingly under his spell. The Cubists to a man recognized Cézanne as their mentor; each one of them looked at him in a slightly different way, and, to a large extent, it was through pooling their conclusions that they succeeded in launching their supremely revolutionary movement. Mondrian had studied Cézanne before he turned his attention to Cubism, and it is interesting, if futile, to speculate whether he could have found his way into total abstraction through Cézanne alone. The German Expressionists of both the Brücke and the Blaue Reiter groups revered Cézanne but were never quite sure how best to make use of him.

The Italian Futurists tended to avoid him; they were in a hurry and Cézanne is an artist who can’t be rushed. Their Russian counterparts, however, saw the point of Cézanne although they soon came to look at him through Cubist eyes. The Suprematists and Constructivists alike acknowledged that it was Cézanne who had got their show on the road. It is hard to say which of his artistic progeny Cézanne would have disliked least: Matisse, perhaps. In the early years of the century Cézanne was already recognized as a multifaceted artist but was viewed most generally as a somewhat naive one, the “primitive” (a word he used about himself) of new sensibility. But in the 1920s, the “rappel à l’ordre“—the turn away from experiment called for by Cocteau—Cézanne emerges as a classicist and as the true heir to Poussin. The Surrealists, feeling that Cézanne couldn’t be completely excluded from their scheme of things, seized on the vein of blackness in his early work, on its disturbing violence and wild eroticism.

During Cézanne’s lifetime—he died in 1906—there was a sharp divide over his critical reception, which came with the great exhibition held by the dealer Vollard in 1895. Until then Cézanne had received relatively little critical attention, most of it invective. He had shown three paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and then seventeen works at the third, in 1877; but, apart from this, before the Vollard show he had had virtually no exposure and was sometimes attacked, as it were, “in absentia.” In the first of his pamphlets accompanying the 1877 exhibition the critic Georges Rivière wrote: “The artist who has been the most attacked, the most mistreated by the press and the public for the past fifteen years, is M. Cézanne.” Rivière went on to stake out for himself a small claim to immortality when he declared:

M. Cézanne is, in his works, a Greek of the great period; his canvases have the calm and heroic serenity of the paintings and terra-cottas of antiquity, and the ignorant who laugh at the Bathers, for example, impress me like barbarians criticizing the Parthenon. M. Cézanne is a painter, and a great painter.

But such praise was then rare indeed. Nevertheless Cézanne continued to submit his work yearly to the official Salon, transporting his rejected entries back and forth in a wheelbarrow and dressing, perhaps half-consciously, to attract attention in aggressively provincial clothes. The Vollard show changed all that.

When the rich and discerning painter Gustave Caillebotte died in 1894 and bequeathed his magnificent collection to the Luxembourg, the authorities raised difficulties over accepting it; of the works they rejected, the highest proportion were by Cézanne and Pissarro. Vollard later claimed that he had mounted his first Cézanne exhibition in the face of this injustice. But the truth is that this shrewdest and wiliest of all dealers realized that if in some respects Cézanne was an outcast, he had by now also become a legend. A year before the exhibition, in 1894, Gustave Geffroy had observed that Cézanne was “at once unknown and famous…a mystery surrounds his person and his work.”

Vollard also knew of the regard in which Cézanne was held by his peers, men like Degas, Monet, and Renoir, who had by now become famous and successful. And it is deeply significant that during his lifetime all Cézanne’s greatest supporters and admirers were painters. Pissarro had sensed Cézanne’s greatness from the start. When in 1888 Joris-Karl Huysmans published an article on “Trois peintres,” dedicated to Cézanne, Tissot, and Wagner, he did so because he had been pushed into it by Pissarro and Degas. Fellow artists were also Cézanne’s most assiduous collectors: Pissarro owned fourteen works by him, Degas seven, Renoir three, Gauguin and his disciple Maurice Denis two each. In 1899 Matisse crippled his already disastrous finances in order to buy his first Cézanne, the Three Bathers of 1879-1882, which was subsequently to become a lodestar to early twentieth-century artists.

After the Vollard show dissenting voices were still raised, but the battle for recognition had been won. In the early years of this century two young painters, Emile Bernard and Charles Camoin, put the critical seal, in writing, on Cézanne’s reputation. Success came too late for Cézanne; soon he was to stop reading all his reviews. But, then, despite his failed efforts to find official approval at what he called “Le Salon de Bougereau,” he had never courted it. If it had come to him earlier he probably would have known how to reject it.

He was born in Aix-en-Provence, the son of a hatter who by 1848 had amassed enough wealth to buy the only bank in town. Cézanne père was a tyrant and miser and Cézanne hated and feared him. But he was probably less of a monster than he has been made out to be: after all, he eventually agreed to support his son in a profession he must have mistrusted. And although he kept him on a tight rein Cézanne never experienced the extreme financial insecurity experienced by his associates. Later Cézanne remarked caustically, and in a vein that recalled some of his father’s own temperament, that Louis-Auguste was “a man of genius, he left me an income of twenty thousand francs.” Cézanne’s parents were not married until five years after his birth, and knowledge of his illegitimacy may have affected him more than has been supposed, as did the fact that he went prematurely bald. Cézanne disliked his own appearance but faced it unflinchingly in the mirror and produced self-portraits which in their number, range, and psychological depth can be compared only to those of Rembrandt.

At the Collège Bourbon (now the Lycée Mignet) Cézanne, though he was somewhat unruly, acquitted himself well; it was there that he acquired his lifelong love of classical literature, and he was more deeply steeped in it than any other artist of his generation. Gauguin, who admired Cézanne inordinately—a feeling that was most emphatically not reciprocated—once described him as “a man of the south of France who spends entire days on the summit of the mountain reading Virgil.” Certainly Virgil was the writer Cézanne most loved; at the age of twenty he translated the Eclogues. But he was equally versed in Ovid, Lucretius, Cicero, and Apuleius, and for him Plato was the “supreme philosopher.” Although Cézanne was a slow reader he also kept up with contemporary French literature; and of his own “moderns” Baudelaire meant most to him. His copy of Les Fleurs du mal was literally thumbed to pieces. With the possible exception of Degas, Cézanne was the best educated of the artists to be associated with Impressionism. But it is dangerous to overestimate the power of his intellect as certain critics have done: he lived through his eyes rather than through his mind and he was not an intellectual in the way that Gauguin, for example, certainly was.

It was at the Collège Bourbon that Cézanne met Emile Zola, a year his junior. Cézanne, physically stronger, became Zola’s protector; and the relationship between the two formed the principal axis of Cézanne’s emotional life. It is a tale that has been often told, and its fascination is endless. There were the early, halcyon days when, together with their friend Baptistin Baille, they roamed the countryside around Aix, a Virgilian idyll described best by Zola in his article on Alfred Musset, who had replaced Victor Hugo as their idol; it left Cézanne with a lifelong if unfulfilled longing for close male companionship. Afterward there were the years of apprenticeship and deprivation in Paris, which must have confirmed Zola in seeing himself as an artist of the industrial and capitalist age and Cézanne in realizing that the urban scene was not for him. Next came Zola’s defense of Manet and the Impressionists, a defense which he saw as a duty to the misunderstood and attacked (although he didn’t understand or like their work all that much himself) and also perhaps as a challenge to his genius as a polemical journalist. But with Zola’s enormous and overnight success with L’Assommoir in 1877 there came a shift of feeling.

As a youth Zola had believed in Cézanne’s genius, at least in part because he had sensed the uniqueness of his personality; and Cézanne must surely have helped to coin the famous phrase in Zola’s review of the Salon of 1866, that “a work of art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament.” But as Zola himself became increasingly celebrated so he came to see Cézanne’s art as unresolved, his talent unfulfilled. The two men loved each other and continued to do so, and Cézanne was always welcome in Zola’s apartment and at his country house in Médan. But as Zola became ever more of a public figure and celebrity, Cézanne became increasingly introverted, turning in not only on himself but on his art. The difficult aspects of Cézanne’s character, his farouche, often violent outbursts, his innocent, even childlike expressions of humility and arrogance—these must have come to seem to Zola less romantic, less sympathetic, less revealing of the passionate personality in which he had once believed.

The final break came with the publication of Zola’s L’Oeuvre in 1886. In it a character resembling Cézanne appears as Claude Lantier, the failed painter who eventually hangs himself in front of the canvas which was to have been his masterpiece and which he realizes he can never complete. (The references to Balzac’s Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu are more or less overt—Cézanne admired the novel greatly and we know that he came to identify with Balzac’s fictional painter Frenhofer.) Lantier is in fact a composite character: in his notes Zola writes of him as “a Manet, a dramatized Cézanne, closer to Cézanne”; and contemporaries were aware of the fact that he put much of himself into the character as he also did into Lantier’s writer friend Sandoz. Lantier had first made an appearance in Le Ventre de Paris of 1873, and Cézanne had not minded; he was touchy, even paranoid, but he shared with Zola a sense of the appropriateness of life being used as the raw material of art, and he had a somewhat coarse sense of fun which probably allowed him to see the portrayal of himself as a joke. Now, however, he must have felt himself exposed, violated.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print