Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), painter - Biography

Paul Cézanne, originally from Provence and friend of Zola, is today famous for his many landscape compositions and still lifes. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, it was in isolation and anonymity that he produced his major works, in search of a new pictorial construction that moved him away from Impressionism. This French painter is considered the father of modern painting.

Between romanticism and realism

Born in Aix-en-Provence on January 19, 1839, Paul Cézanne is the son of a wealthy bourgeois from Aix society. With his childhood friend Émile Zola (two years younger) whom he met at college, he showed an early interest in humanist disciplines. After studying law, Paul Cézanne was granted a small pension by his family and left to study painting in Paris. Between 1861 and 1869, alongside Émile Zola, he divided his life between Aix and Paris. There, he discovered and became passionate about the work of Eugène Delacroix, of romantic eclecticism, and that of Gustave Courbet, of revolutionary realism. Enrolled in the Swiss Academy in Paris in 1862 (where he met Camille Pissarro), he also liked to study the manner of artists such as Titian, Pierre Paul Rubens, Diego Vélasquez or Caravaggio, when he visited the Louvre. From 1863, Paul Cézanne regularly offered his paintings to the Salon jury, which systematically refused to exhibit them, with the exception of 1882 (this is how he participated in the Salon des refusés in 1863). .

Paul Cézanne's first paintings reveal his taste for allegories. The nostalgia for romanticism is expressed there in a heavy, strong material way, pasticating and recapitulating the previous generation. However, even as Émile Zola continued his quest for a realistic novel, Paul Cézanne gradually took an interest in the representation of reality by painting portraits and still lifes, without concern for thematic idealization or stylistic affectation. . This is the case with the Black Marble Pendulum (1869-1870, private collection, Paris), a painting in which the painter, by omitting the representation of the hands, freezes time and marks the physical gravity of objects.

The influence of impressionism

The most decisive influence that Paul Cézanne received was that of Camille Pissarro, who encouraged him to settle, in 1872, in Auvers-sur-Oise (with Doctor Gachet). Camille Pissarro taught the young painter from Aix-en-Provence the technique of plein air painting, which critics described negatively as Impressionist in 1874. With Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and a few others, Camille Pissarro forged a style which presupposes rapid and subjective work. , using small touches of pure color, to make the obvious of life in motion. These artists hope to capture the most fleeting notes of nature and record their own visual interpretation - just as fleeting - of each moment.

Under this patronage (from 1872 to 1873), Paul Cézanne abandoned dark tones for vivid ones and turned more and more towards scenes of rural life, where color took precedence over modeling. Under the friendly pressure of Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne took part in some of the Impressionist exhibitions (in particular the first in 1874, organized by Félix Nadar) which broke, through the economic and aesthetic desire to escape traditional artistic circuits, with the officiality. However, faced with the hostility and incomprehension that his paintings know in particular, Paul Cézanne moved away from his Parisian companions between the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1880s, and spent most of his time in Aix. -in Provence.

From the constructive period ...

From 1882, Paul Cézanne stopped working in close collaboration with Camille Pissarro. Shortly after, he took umbrage at the Work of Émile Zola (1886), a novel in which the writer painted the portrait of a realistic painter, Claude Lantier, incapable of capturing reality other than in death. Appalled by his friend's feelings for him, Paul Cézanne breaks up with his oldest admirer. The same year, he inherited his father's fortune, thus acquiring financial ease which allowed him to isolate himself and concentrate on his work, outside any other formal or material contingencies.

The years 1880-1890 are those of the maturity of the "Cézanne" style. During this prolific period, the artist continued to carry out studies from nature in the Impressionist movement, while seeking a way to break with a painting of fleeting shade, for a painting of duration - in other words, substituting for time which passes in the changing light of day the eternal gravity of objects.

Paul Cézanne wants to mark the construction of the pictorial space rather than the appearance of the moment, without sacrificing the evocative power of colors. In order to meet this requirement, it systematizes the method of the directional key. The touch, in addition to information on the color and the material of an object, will render, by its arrangement and its orientation, the volume of the object in the general architecture of the canvas. With a bundle of brushstrokes placed vertically to paint a tree, and brushstrokes placed horizontally for the rendering of the sea, Paul Cézanne draws directly in color, thus materializing the elements of reality with a geometric frame.

... In the synthetic period

In the last years of his life, Cézanne's style evolved towards a simplification of forms, a geometry dissolving gradually in the color. This is the case with the Montagne Sainte-Victoire series, where, on the impressionist process of the graduated repetition of the motif, the artist offers a reflection on the very notion of landscape by layering the perspective rendering of the plans (la Montagne Sainte -Victory, view of Bibémus, 1898-1900, Baltimore Art Museum).

The last part of his work is characterized by the installation of large portraits (series of Large Bathers, 1898-1905, Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Barnes Foundation, Merion; Les Grandes Baigneuses, The National Gallery, London), in which human bodies become large sculptural volumes structured by modulations of color.

From near anonymity to celebrity

For many years, Paul Cézanne's work was known only to his Impressionist friends and to a few artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Working in almost complete isolation, the artist is wary of criticism and exhibitions. In 1895, however, Ambroise Vollard (an ambitious Parisian art dealer) organized an exhibition of the artist's works, which he continued to promote successfully for several years. It was a revelation for many artists and critics, for whom it then became an immediate reference (Maurice Denis, Homage to Cézanne, 1900, Musée d´Orsay). Many young artists now go to Aix-en-Provence to observe his work. Several important exhibitions followed (solo exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants in 1899, Salon d'Automne in 1904, 1905 and 1906) and, on his death (in Aix-en-Provence, on October 22, 1906), he gained fame.

The next generation of painters gradually adopted most of the characteristics specific to Paul Cézanne. This generation feels the imperative, though complex, need to find a new lease of life, capable of giving modern art its sincerity and commitment, the naturalist aims of Impressionism having sunk into academicism.


- Paul Cézanne, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. RMN editions, 2006.

- Correspondence from Paul Cézanne. Grasset, 2006.

Video: Paul Cézanne 1839 - 1906 - Landscape paintings - Part II. (January 2022).