Paul Cezanne 1839-1906

Paul Cezanne was a French painter, often called the father of modern art, who strove to develop a synthesis of naturalistic representation, personal expression, and abstraction.

Among the artists of his time, Cezanne perhaps has had the most profound effect on the art of the 20th century. He was the greatest single influence on both the French artist Henri Matisse, who admired his color, and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who developed Cezanne's compositional structure into the cubist style. During the greater part of his own lifetime, however, Cezanne was largely ignored, and he worked in isolation. He mistrusted critics, had few friends, and, until 1895, exhibited only occasionally. He was alienated even from his family, who found his behavior peculiar and failed to appreciate his revolutionary art.

Early Life and Work

Cezanne was born in the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence, January 19, 1839, the son of a wealthy banker. His boyhood companion was Zola, who later gained fame as a novelist. Cezanne developed artistic interests at an early age, much to the dismay of his father. In 1862, after a number of bitter family disputes, he was given a small allowance and sent to study art in Paris. He was drawn to the more radical elements of the Parisian art world. He especially admired the romantic painter Eugene Delacroix and, among the younger masters, Gustave Courbet and the notorious Edouard Manet, who exhibited realist paintings that were shocking in both style and subject matter to most of their contemporaries.

Influence of the Impressionists

Many of Cezanne's early works were painted in dark tones applied with heavy, fluid pigment. Cezanne gradually developed a commitment to the representation of contemporary life, painting the world he observed. The most significant influence on the work of his early maturity proved to be Camille Pissarro. Pissarro not only provided the moral encouragement that the insecure Cezanne required, but he also introduced him to the new impressionist technique for rendering outdoor light. Under Pissarro's tutelage, Cezanne shifted from dark tones to bright hues and began to concentrate on scenes of farmland and rural villages.

Return to Aix

Although he seemed less technically accomplished than the other Impressionists, Cezanne was accepted by the group and exhibited with them in 1874 and 1877. Cezanne's works received the harshest critical commentary. He drifted away from many of his Parisian contacts during the late 1870s and '80s and spent much of his time in his native Aix. After 1882, he did not work closely again with Pissarro. In 1886, Cezanne became embittered over what he took to be thinly disguised references to his own failures in one of Zola's novels. As a result he broke off relations with his oldest supporter. In the same year, he inherited his father's wealth and finally, at the age of 47, became financially independent, but socially he remained quite isolated.

Cezanne's Use of Color

This isolation and Cezanne's concentration and singleness of purpose may account for the remarkable development he sustained during the 1880s and '90s. In this period he continued to paint studies from nature in brilliant impressionist colors, but he gradually simplified his application of the paint to the point where he seemed able to define volumetric forms. He reintroduced a formal structure that the impressionists had abandoned, without sacrificing the sense of brilliant illumination they had achieved. Cezanne himself spoke of "modulating" with color rather than"modeling" which he said, was "parallel to nature". For Cezanne, the answer to all the technical problems of Impressionism lay in a use of color both more orderly and more expressive than that of his fellow impressionists.

Cezanne's goal was, in his own mind, never fully attained. He left most of his works unfinished and destroyed many others. The succeeding generation of painters, however, eventually came to be receptive to Cezanne'sapproach.

Significance of Cezanne's Work

For many years Cezanne was known only to his Impressionist colleagues and to a few younger radical postimpressionist artists, including Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. In 1895, however, Ambroise Vollard, an ambitious Paris art dealer, arranged a show of Cezanne's works and over the next few years promoted them successfully. By 1904, Cezanne was featured in a major official exhibition, and by the time of his death (in Aix on October 22, 1906) he had attained legendary status. During his last years many younger artists traveled to Aix to observe him at work and to receive any words of wisdom he might offer. Both his style and his theory remained mysterious and cryptic; he seemed to some a naive primitive, while to others he was a sophisticated master of technical procedure. The intensity of his color, coupled with the rigor of his composition, signaled that, he had synthesized the expressive and representational elements of painting in an original way.

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