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.
And then the portrait of Lantier is so unconvincing; Laurent, the painter in Thérèse Raquin, a much earlier Zola novel, is in many way more telling as a portrait of Cézanne. The fact that Lantier is confounded at certain moments with Manet—the first picture we witness Lantier painting is Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe—must have been painful; Manet was to remain until the end of his life a controversial figure, but he had painted individual master-pieces, recognizable landmarks in contemporary painting, in a way that Cézanne had not. Claude Lantier is a failure as a character because by now Zola’s pseudoscientific interests had led him into an obsession with creating types, manifestations of hereditary and social conditions; he had become a chronicler, a documentor, and he still wrote passionately out of moral indignation but no longer out of personal experience or love. Cézanne was a true “original,” but he was not a type. Manet could have just conceivably been turned into a type—the urbane, literate artist who is a revolutionary malgré lui. Van Gogh would have been a perfect subject for Zola; there have been scores of painters who have shared his temperament, although none, of course, of his particular genius. Gauguin was not a type but turned himself into an archetype, certainly into a legend, though once again after Zola had lost much of his interest in the visual arts.
Zola’s description of Cézanne as “un grand peintre avorté,” which came in his last Salon piece of 1896, in which he more or less savaged his old Impressionist friends and their legacy, has always been held against him. Very few commentators have gone to the trouble to point out that he led up to his remark by saying, “I have grown up virtually in the same cradle as Cézanne; one is only now beginning to discover the touches of genius in this abortive great artist.” Two years later he said to the young Aixois poet Joachim Gasquet, “I even begin to understand his painting, which for a long time I did not understand, or I thought it exaggerated, whereas actually it is unbelievably sincere and truthful.” But by then many other people were saying the same thing and Cézanne no longer needed Zola’s critical help, which could have been so valuable to him earlier on. Zola’s visual sense in artistic matters was unreliable (and his personal taste execrable), but at least he went on thinking and worrying about his old friend.
In one sense, however, the break was complete and irrevocable. When he received his copy of L’Oeuvre Cézanne wrote Zola a short, dignified letter of thanks; it is possible he had not yet read it through, but it would also have been characteristic of him to refuse to show his wounds. The two men never met again. When Cézanne heard of Zola’s death in 1902, he shut himself into his studio for a day, inconsolable with grief. Clearly the news brought back idyllic memories of their youth, although his emotions about the landscape of Provence, the dreams and fantasies it had engendered in both artists, but infinitely more profoundly in Cézanne, had long since been sublimated, dignified by being merged into a higher order of things, into some region where art becomes religion.
In some respects the two friends had been each other’s counterparts. In 1891 the friend of their youth, Numa Coste, had written to Zola of Cézanne, “He is well and physically solid, but he has become timid and primitive and younger than ever.” I suspect that this was one of the most perceptive remarks ever made about the painter. Passionate, strong, intelligent, and determined, he had nevertheless a corner of his personality that never matured in human relationships or even, possibly, in his intellectual development. His sudden rages, his terrible fear of being unexpectedly touched, his innate sense of helplessness in the face of many aspects of life—these were coupled with his overriding sense of artistic superiority, which could also be instantly punctured, bruised, and then nursed back through his feelings of respect but also of hatred for what he recognized to be the qualities and achievements of the art of his age. All these things speak of a certain personal immaturity; but whatever failed to flower in his life or even in his character he put into his art, and there he kept it flourishing, growing, until his death.
During the past two decades important Cézanne exhibitions have concentrated on particular aspects or phases of his work: “The Late Work” (1977), “The Early Years” (1988), “The Bathers” (1989). The exhibition on view at present in Paris, which then travels to London and Philadelphia, is the grandest full-dress retrospective to have been mounted since the one seen in Paris in 1936. It has been exceptionally well selected (by Francoise Cachin and Joseph J. Rishel) and the effect is overwhelming; it puts the middle years back into Cézanne and we can once again see the artist whole.
The first thing that strikes one is the astonishing diversity of Cézanne’s output; and one of the reasons for this is that from the very start the different genres of painting—portraits, still life, landscape, and figure pieces—were so strongly differentiated in his mind. His response to each of them brought forth a separate aspect of his talent and his psychological makeup. There are very few static moments in his career—his art was continually on the move. The second thing that strikes one is that the totality of the achievement is so rock-like and monolithic, so all of a piece. The exhibition tells the story of radical but unruly gifts carefully husbanded, but also of an artist transcending his limitations, turning them into strengths.
The power and rawness of the early work makes it seem relevant to various waves of twentieth-century Expressionism. But some of the drawings in particular demonstrate that Cézanne was capable of working in more conventional and acceptable contemporary modes if he chose to; others show that he was also from the start uncomfortable with traditional ways of rendering reality: the apparent clumsiness of much of the early work is, to a certain extent at least, deliberate. When Zola mentioned Cézanne in connection with the Impressionists and suggested that he remained closer than they did to Delacroix and Courbet he was probably echoing Cézanne’s own views, and he was correct. Although Cézanne responded to Delacroix’s color, he was interested not so much in Delacroix’s innovative use of it (as the Impressionists were) as in its sumptuousness and in the way that Delacroix was keeping alive a tradition of art that went back through Rubens to the great Venetians of the sixteenth century, the painters who ultimately meant most to Cézanne. He was also overwhelmed by the exotic sexuality of much of Delacroix’s work.
As for Courbet, Cézanne was equally drawn to his nudes but he admired them for opposite reasons, for their ripeness, their earthiness and directness. Cézanne was the only artist of his generation to try to find an equivalent to the physicality and fleshiness of Courbet’s use of paint. This is made evident in the palette-knife paintings of the 1860s, works of astonishing presence that literally seem to thrust themselves off the wall.
Cézanne met Pissarro, nine years his senior, in 1861 when both men were working at the Académie Suisse. Cézanne saw him as a father figure and came to view him as the true founder of Impressionism. It was Pissarro who drew Cézanne into the movement’s orbit; and the days spent painting in his company in the countryside outside Paris in the 1870s must have been some of the happiest in Cézanne’s life. Cézanne’s debts to Impressionism were manifold. It turned him into a landscapist and hence taught him what he already instinctively knew: that nature could reflect the concerns, the moods, and, in his own case, the very passion of human beings. Writing to Zola concerning his novel Une Page d’amour, which came out in 1878, Cézanne said, “…the places…are impregnated with the passion that moves the characters. They seem to be animated, to participate as it were in the suffering of living beings.”
Cézanne remained secretly distrustful of his contemporaries, except for “the humble and colossal Pissarro,” but during the years that he was associated with Impressionism Cézanne must have experienced for the one and only time the sense of belonging to an artistic community. Most importantly, Impressionism taught him that painting could be a joyful activity in itself. It didn’t remove the pain and anxiety that he always experienced because of the conviction that he could never realize himself totally, never reach what in old age he referred to as “the promised land”; but Impressionism helped smooth the ground for him and made his journey possible.
Impressionism also altered his working methods radically. Although so much Impressionist painting looks airy and spontaneous, in Cézanne’s case it turned him from an impetuous and turbulent painter into a slow and methodical one. The broken, relatively small, and irregular brush strokes used by the Impressionists to evoke sensations of flickering light became in Cézanne’s hand a new pictorial vocabulary of parallel strokes and hatchings which organize and unify the picture surface, while at the same time working the eye in and out of pictoral depth. These strokes evoke light, through color, but they have other functions in ways that the Impressionist touch did not.
Working in this way—his transition to a new method takes place between the mid-1870s and the early 1880s—Cézanne would move from area to area of the canvas surface, setting up a dialogue between its emergent parts and often allowing patches of the white canvas support to show through. This raised the whole question of finish, which has bothered artists ever since. It bothered Cézanne, too; he signed only a minute fraction of his pictures, and all of them were works in which the entire surface is covered by paint. But he must also have realized that often his paintings looked right before they reached what he would have considered completion.
Pissarro for one preferred the “unfinished” pictures, and Renoir remarked that Cézanne was incapable of putting down two separate strokes without achieving a satisfying effect. Cézanne’s new working methods also account for some of his most startling formal innovations. I believe that he sometimes stepped back from a painting in progress, became aware of white or unfinished areas that bothered him, and completed or tied together his compositions with arbitrary, unnaturalistic, or quasi-abstract devices. Strong planes or bars of color for example are forced to become dadoes, or fragments of architecture or furniture, or even pictures within a picture, as in the Metropolitan Museum’s superb Mme Cézanne in a Yellow Armchair of 1893-1897 (see opposite page). It is these devices which create the thrilling spatial tensions that are unique to his art.
Into the landscapes of the middle period, the 1870s and 1880s, Cézanne often introduces a visual barrier, generally at the bottom of the picture: a road or a sheet of water seen horizontally, or a path that twists so sharply up the picture plane as to deny the eye any access to depth. But once we have metaphorically climbed over these barriers and inserted ourselves into the painting, Cézanne’s landscapes become places of sanctuary. “Nature for us men is more depth than surface,” Cézanne declared; but the depth is always measured and reassuring. There are no sudden vortexes, rather the eye is led back slowly and serenely through overlapping or diminishing planes placed parallel to the picture surface. Color is not tinted or faded toward white as in conventional atmospheric perspective; Cézanne spoke of the “need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air.” Blue was Cézanne’s color and his command of its every nuance was astonishing. Despite the fact that Cézanne’s landscapes are often dense and impacted, they are never airless—their air creates their depth and it is the blues that do it.
One of the things that had separated Cézanne from Impressionism right from the start was his ability to improvise and abstract: a bottle with no visible means of support thrusts its way up into a still life as a compositional device; branches and even trunks of trees are intertwined to create compositional rhythms or to frame a distant view; clouds and skies echo and become as palpable as the contours of the earth below them. The late landscapes painted in the south (the works painted in the northern countryside tend to be cooler and more analytic) are of the remoter, wilder areas around Aix; yet the pictorial planes by which they are rendered are invariably parallel to the picture plane, giving them a sense of calmness and inevitability. The earlier visual barriers are now often eliminated but we are still not invited to wander through landscapes, just to be in them. In such works as The Great Pine of about 1890, forms become increasingly animate, the vegetation denser; these pictures envelop and protect us. Solitary trees take on a particular importance and we sense in them the artist’s personal presence. In the very late paintings of Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte Victoire, seen from the studio at Les Lauves, just outside Aix, which the artist had built for him in 1902, the contours of the mountain become softer and more beckoning, markedly breast-like. There is a sense of coming home.
The still lifes belong to a different side of Cézanne’s art. From the start he had shown himself aware of the symbolic implications of the genre: a wholly traditional memento mori of 1866 shows a skull placed next to a burnt-down candle and a withered bunch of flowers; but a more interesting work of about 1870 (not in the exhibition) offers a subtler but more forceful confrontation between a coffin-like black clock with no hands and a large seashell bisected by a livid, fleshy lip. The early still lifes are mostly austere and they are the most Hispanic of Cézanne’s pictures. The still lifes executed during the years of contact with Impressionism, on the other hand, are often characterized by an extraordinary sense of plenitude. Their subject matter is humble: fruit, vegetables, jugs, pitchers, and baskets. Simple kitchen and household objects, to which he was clearly much attached, traveled back and forth with him on his trips to Paris. The apple in particular became a leitmotif in his art and even during his lifetime there was much talk of “Cézanne’s apples.”
But it was Meyer Schapiro who, in the celebrated article “The Apples of Cézanne” (1968) which changed the course of Cézanne studies, first pointed out the connection between apples and love and sexual fantasy and desire in Western art from classical times onward, and this helps to explain the sense of fulfillment that is generated by Cézanne’s still lifes. More than any other paintings by Cézanne they invite a tactile response. Cézanne soon evolved the device of introducing wedges under the objects that he had set up in his studio, so that while we view them at eye level they simultaneously tip toward us as if viewed from above, and from a more informative angle. I also believe that during prolonged working sessions that could go on for months Cézanne unconsciously began to move closer to his subjects, affirming and widening their contours, rendering them ever more ample and more generous—hence the premonitions in his work of the Cubists’ multiple perspectives. Some of the still lifes are also the most vivid and brightly colored of his works. “When color is at its richest, form is at its fullest,” he once observed; and he also avowed that his intention was “to do with color what used to be done with black and black and white shading.” In other words, his aim was to model with color.
The late still lifes are some of the grandest and most baroque of all Cézanne’s works. They are characterized by great arching, swinging centrifugal rhythms. In works such as Apples and Oranges of 1899, the objects depicted are the same ones Cézanne had always used but they look increasingly majestic; the drapery that surrounds them becomes heavier and more sumptuous. These paintings find their closest echo in the drawings from late antique and Baroque sculpture, for example the work of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and Martin Desjardins, that Cézanne did in the Louvre. They are the transcendental substitutes for all the flesh that Cézanne never touched, for all the muscle that never found contact with his own. By contrast, the late still life watercolors seem to dissolve form into color; color is no longer descriptive or adjectival but rather becomes a substance in its own right. These watercolors were to be as influential in the formation of early twentieth-century art as the oils themselves.
The portraits, and the paintings of single figures, on the other hand, belong, like the landscapes, to the more sober, classical side of Cézanne’s art. The early palette-knife portraits showed a high degree of social and psychological penetration. This was something that Cézanne deliberately eliminated, just as he killed off the more fantastic and fanciful side of his imagination. “My method, if I have one, is based on hatred of the imagination,” he was to say. Some of his portraits of his son demonstrate the indulgence he bore toward him; but one of the reasons Madame Cézanne proved so useful a model to him—and there are countless portraits and studies of her—was not just her physical availability but also surely her complete emotional blankness. Yet when we are faced by her likeness we recognize that, if she is being used, she is not being exploited. Any affection Cézanne might have had for her seems to have fast faded; but he had a profound respect for the ability of human beings simply to endure, just to cope with life, and in the case of his portraits of writers such as Joachim Gasquet and Gustave Geffroy, to achieve. But even these have about them a feeling of anonymity.
Two late pictures of an unidentified woman dressed in blue might be of different models wearing the same costume. There is even a sense in which his portraits, too, are still lifes. “Be an apple,” he used to shout at his hapless sitters if they chanced to stir. But all the portraits—even that of the tough and scheming Vollard—are graced with a feeling of gravity and respect. Late in life he preferred to paint anonymous peasants. “Look at that old café proprietor seated at his doorway. What style!” he once exclaimed. His gardener, Vallier, became a favorite subject toward the end; in some respects the old man seems even to have replaced Zola as an alter ego. In Vallier’s seamed face and gnarled hands Cézanne saw a biblical grandeur, and he also saw in him that identification of man with nature which was one of the things that had originally drawn him to classical literature. Some of the very late single-figure pictures are the most thickly painted and impacted of all Cézanne’s paintings; the areas where the subject’s contours meet the background are raised in great welts and ridges, and one senses that Cézanne was fighting to reclaim the human figure from the pictorial matrix in which it has become embedded.
The early pictures of figures that hint at a narrative content and the subsequent Bathers will always remain the most controversial and mysterious aspect of Cézanne’s art. Roger Fry, whose beautiful extended essay of 1927 on Cézanne contains what is perhaps the classic formalistic analysis of his work, simply couldn’t take them. He suggests that when Cézanne is faced with a naked model his draftsmanship collapses; and certainly the Bathers contain the most extreme deformations to appear in Cézanne’s art. On the other hand, the multi-figure compositions are of endless fascination to scholars because they invite comparison with a wide range of literary sources. These comparisons are illuminating but don’t always quite work.
Cézanne’s own early erotic verses are clearly a key. The Abduction, a pivotal work of 1867, painted for Zola, shows a muscular male nude striding off along a river bank clasping to himself a voluptuous female body, rendered in livid off-whites; she may even be dead. A youthful poem, “Une Terrible Histoire,” explores a moment of high passion which turns into a nightmare when the man discovers that the woman in his arms has become a corpse. Ovid has also been brought forward as a source for this picture, and it has been suggested that its true subject is the abduction of Persephone by Pluto. Flaubert’s Salammbôo is a convincing source for L’Orgie of about 1870 (and on the purely visual side Veronese’s Marriage Feast at Cana in the Louvre is an obvious one). In the early scenes of violence, mostly pictures with three figures, the victim is usually a woman. These find parallels with lurid episodes in early Zola novels such as the murder of Camille in Thérèse Raquin of 1867. Mary Louise Krumrine in her essay for the Basel Bathers exhibition of 1989, one of the most important contributions to recent Cézanne literature, makes an interesting case for the importance to Cézanne of Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret.
This is an awkward novel that has divided Zola scholars, partly, I suspect, because of its overblown lyricism—lyricism was not Zola’s forte. In Zola’s own words the novel is about “the great struggle between nature and religion.” In it Mouret emerges from his seminary feeling spiritually exalted and cleansed but is irresistibly drawn back into the rhythms and the earthiness of his native Provençal landscape, and subsequently to the allure of a mysterious woman who, to him, exemplifies it. Zola conceived of the book in 1869, probably just before Cézanne began his Temptation of St. Anthony, which Krumrine sees as part of a “triptych,” together with The Picnic and Pastorale. All are of approximately the same date, and, like the novel, they deal with themes of temptation, renunciation, seduction, and sexual capitulation and suggest the relationship of these to nature and by implication to art. In all of the “triptych” paintings Cézanne pictures himself as a participant, more or less overtly, and Krumrine advances the intriguing suggestion that the head of one of the female nudes in The Temptation, male in appearance, is a portrait of Zola.
Krumrine also points out that Zola’s novel was published in 1875 and that a year or two later Cézanne produced his Baigneurs au repos (in the Barnes Foundation and not in this exhibition; see page 45), the most autobiographical of his Bathers. The picture shows three foreground, or dominant, figures, two of them male and a third of indeterminate sex but which I read as being male (Krumrine doesn’t; but she also points out that Mouret left his seminary feeling himself “a stranger to other men…he felt himself feminized…washed free of sex”). In Cézanne’s picture, a more distant figure seen from behind projects a strong female aura. In the novel’s pivotal scene, Mouret succumbs to carnal temptation in Paradou, a garden probably modeled on the Domaine de Gallice, a cultivated enclosure discovered by Cézanne and Zola in their youthful wanderings.
Krumrine also advances the seductive suggestion that the “triptych” paintings and the Baigneurs au repos and then the later Bathers represent in a sense the great collaboration between Zola and Cézanne that Zola had once dreamt of. But it seems to me that it is after the Baigneurs au repos that Zola and Cézanne break apart definitively as artists. The sexual element in Zola is invariably present but it acquires its potency from his obsession with situating it in a socially and psychologically explainable context. One has only to think of Nana (the novel bearing her name came out in 1880 to record-breaking sales), born into poverty and deprivation, frenetically coupling behind half-open doors with her male servants who are paid for indirectly by the protectors she services. The Baigneurs au repos, on the other hand, is the prelude to Cézanne’s ultimate act of sublimation. Here the figures are united to the landscape by mood. In the subsequent paintings they become so physically. It is in the Bathers that the ubiquitous broken, dark blue contours that became possibly the greatest single hallmark of Cézanne’s style can most clearly be traced. They affirm and then reaffirm the outline of the figure they depict, but simultaneously they open it up into space and into the surrounding environment. The bathers flow back into the landscape around them and in turn the landscape flows back into them; it is notable that the ever-present tree forms in the bather pictures are imaginary and almost never identifiable as they are in the landscapes themselves. These are entirely works of the imagination.
They are also the works which acknowledge most overtly the extraordinary multiplicity of Cézanne’s sources. As a young man he had worked from anything that came to hand—newspaper illustrations, fashion magazines—and throughout his life he kept with him Charles Blanc’s lavishly illustrated Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles, which he seems to have acquired soon after its publication in 1869. Later on, his eye could be caught by virtually anything in the Louvre, as the sketchbooks he carried with him testify. He was equally attracted to Antique and early Renaissance art and to Mannerism and the Baroque. On his studio walls there were reproductions of Poussin and Rubens, of Couture as well as of Delacroix. Some of his figures are drawn from the anatomical model, or écorché, he owned, others from Michelangelo, still others from Signorelli—the list is endless. It was through the Bathers that Cézanne communicated most freely with other art.
From the late 1870s onward the bathing figures become sexually segregated. The female bathers do not touch one another but are connected by their gestures and by the increasingly elaborate compositional rhythms into which they are inserted. A recurrent pose shows a figure with an arm raised in benediction, a gesture derived originally from scenes of “The Baptism of Christ” to be found in Blanc’s Histoire, and there are other similar derivations. The paintings thus come to have echoes of both the sacred and the profane, of Christian ritual and of pagan rites of cleansing and rejuvenation through immersion in water.
The pictures of male bathers tend to be more horizontal in format and more frieze-like. As with the female bathers, the figures don’t touch, but they are united by movement and by the activity in which they are engaged, and to this extent they are more truly bathers than their female counterparts, who often look simply like figures in a landscape setting. Many of the male bathers are paired off with individual trees, while the configurations of branches and foliage in the female paintings tend often to be arched and vault-like, enclosing.
If the sexes remain segregated, after 1900 the sexual identity of individual figures becomes often increasingly ambiguous. This is partly because the poses of many of the female figures are derived from male prototypes in other art, and, to a lesser extent, vice versa. That Cézanne was concerned with the interchangeability of gender is confirmed by the fact that he drew, most powerfully, from the Louvre’s famous late antique L’hermaphrodite endormie; he frequently uses its pose. And yet in a sense the issue is irrelevant because sex is not what these paintings are about. From the moment that Cézanne’s figures in outdoor settings had removed their clothing and had become bathers—and this was at the time that Cézanne emerged as one of the most original landscapists of all time—the sexual tensions which had been so powerful a current in his early work do not totally vanish but are rather now sublimated, transcended.
Most of the Bathers are relatively small in scale. Then, right at the end of his life, Cézanne produced three very large, monumental canvases of female bathers. In a sense they recapitulate or encapsulate the larger rhythms or currents of his art. The first and the greatest of the three, which Cézanne worked on from 1894 to 1905, is in the Barnes Collection and was not available for this exhibition. But the London canvas of 1902-1906 and the Philadelphia picture dating from the final year of Cézanne’s life, seen together, make a memorable finish to a truly memorable exhibition. The Barnes picture has about it a brooding intensity that is evocative of the very early work; the figure with raised arms at the extreme right, allied to a great tree trunk—almost crucified to it—exudes an air of masculinity. The London painting is the bluest and the composition is frieze-like, and this together with the fact that there is a greater feeling of physical activity in it recalls the male Bathers of the 1890s.
The Philadelphia Bathers (on this page) is the most serene and classical in feel; two small male figures or presences survey the scene from the far distance, across the water. Large areas of bare canvas are scattered across the surface of the canvas, and Cézanne would certainly have seen the picture as unfinished. But the picture radiates calm perfection; the bare patches unify and bond the composition and in doing so they perform the same function as the white drapery in the preceding pictures. Cézanne had vast ambitions for his paintings and these pictures are his final attempt to assert his position as successor to the great figure painters of the past. But the Bathers in their totality represent also his attempt to be “with” art, and even in an odd sort of way his desire actually to be art.
John Rewald, who died last year, must be accounted the greatest of all Cézanne scholars. The essays in the catalog of the current exhibition, which deal with Cézanne’s critics, strongly acknowledge his work, and all Cézanne studies must begin with his Cézanne. It started life as a Sorbonne thesis on Cézanne and Zola which was published in 1936. A second, greatly enlarged edition appeared in 1939 on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of Cézanne’s birth. The book was reissued in English in 1986 and, as one would have expected from this meticulous scholar, again in a revised form. This final version of the book has just been issued in French; Francophile that he was, Rewald would have been pleased. The last of his major publications on the artist, Cézanne and America (1989), exemplifies his methods; after decades of patient research, Rewald tracked down not only virtually every Cézanne that had found its way across the Atlantic but also the circumstances, aesthetic, social, and commercial, in which it had done so. But his catalogue raisonné of the paintings will appear in the autumn of 1996, and this will be a fitting monument to him.
In a new biography of Cézanne entitled Lost Earth (the title is misleading because Cézanne never really lost the paradise landscape of his youth), Philip Callow has consulted the published letters of Cézanne and Zola but has otherwise drawn exclusively from secondary sources. Admittedly, new facts about Cézanne are difficult to conjure up, although Isabelle Cahn has done so in her invaluable chronological appendix to the catalog of the current exhibition. Callow’s book is readable and improves as it goes along; having dealt with the more intransigent aspects of Cézanne’s character early in his book, Callow clearly developed a true affection for him. But Cézanne is not a figure who lends himself easily to popularization. Two new paperbacks provide sound and complementary introductions to the work. Both books are entitled simply Cézanne; Richard Verdi’s is in the tradition of Roger Fry, Philippe Dagen’s is more discursive. The very short text of Philippe Sollers’s Le Paradis de Cézanne manages nevertheless to catch in a moving and poetic manner much of the flavor of both the man and his art.
January 11, 1996