Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
2017, Art History Series, January
By Cisco Lindsey

An article in the New Yorker several years ago contained an article entitled, “Late Bloomers.” This article talks about artistic geniuses who developed early contrasted with those who were “late bloomers.” Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is cited as an artist who did his greatest work at an early age; Cézanne is given as an example of an artist who did not fully reveal his genius until later in life. Picasso – who lived for another 67 years after Cézanne died – credits Cézanne as probably the greatest of all influences on his development as an artist.

While reading this article it occurred to me that while I had been aware of Cézanne for half a century, I did not really know much about his life story. It seemed time to learn a little more.

Paul Cézanne was born on January 19, 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, in Southern France, the illegitimate son of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, age 40, a prosperous hat maker, and one of his workers, Anne-Elisabeth Honorine Aubert, age 24. They had a second child, Marie, in 1841. In 1844, Louis-Auguste married Anne-Elisabeth and started a successful banking business. Unlike most artists with whom we are familiar, Paul’s father afforded Paul financial security throughout his life.

Dad did not want Paul to be an artist, however, he wanted him to be a lawyer. But Cézanne was bitten by the bug to be an artist early in life. At age ten he studied drawing with a Spanish monk, then spent six years at the Collège Bourbon, dividing his time between class work and drawing classes taken at the Aix Drawing Academy. While quite young, Cézanne formed a close friendship with the writer Emile Zola. Yielding to family pressure, Paul enrolled as a student of law at the University. Some of his legal notes survive – covered with portraits and caricatures scribbled down by the frustrated, day-dreaming would-be artist. In 1860, he narrowly avoided being drafted into the French military.

Against much opposition, art won, and with a modest allowance, Cézanne joined Emile Zola in Paris in 1861 at the age of 22, when he first met Camille Pissaro. For the next ten years he moved from studio to studio and experienced discouragement and rejection, even returning for a while to work in his father’s bank in Aix. Every year he submitted paintings to the Paris Salon. All were rejected until 1882, when a portrait was accepted.

In January, 1871, he was declared a draft dodger, but the war ended in February, presumably letting him off the hook.

Around 1872, he formed friendships with the painter Guillaumin and other impressionists. He continued to see Zola regularly, who supported him in his efforts, intellectually, morally and even financially. He got acquainted with Bazille, Renoir, Monet, and Sisley. In 1866 he met Manet through Zola, who had become Manet’s friend. He spent time in the Louvre copying masterpieces and was influenced by Delacroix and Courbet. He spent little time in formal classes and was largely self-taught.

Cézanne was noted for his stubbornness and the single-minded pursuit of his own style in the face of ridicule, rejection, and failure to sell his work. He was moody and withdrawn and avoided human contact, known to fly into rages. He worked in virtual seclusion and seldom ventured out. He was such a recluse that one critic doubted his existence. He was convinced he would die at a young age and prepared a will at age 42. He had few friends, and alienated those he did have.

In his art, he was obsessed with form rather than content. Subject matter was always secondary to the act of painting itself. To him, the methods and skills of the painter were more important than the image.

In 1869, Paul had met Hortense Fiquet, a model who became his companion. He kept his relationship secret from his puritanical father, including the birth of his son, Paul, in 1872. In 1878, his father discovered the existence of his then six-year old grandson. A strained relationship lasted until 1886 when Paul and Hortense were finally married in the presence of Cézanne’s parents.

In that same year, 1886, Cézanne permanently broke with Emile Zola when Zola published a novel, “The Work.” Paul, egocentric and paranoid, assumed everyone would know Zola was writing about him as the fictitious suicidal painter, Claude Lantier.

Paul’s father died in 1886 and left him an inheritance sufficient to insure financial independence for the rest of his life. (In that dramatic year for Cézanne, here in Charleston we experienced an earthquake, estimated at 7.3 on the Richter Scale.)

In 1890, Hortense and young Paul moved to Paris. Cézanne had begun to suffer from diabetes, which made him extremely irritable. In February 1891, Cézanne reduced Hortense’s allowance to force her to move back to Aix with him. Hortense was on bad terms with her in-laws and in September, moved with young Paul back to Paris.

Cézanne seems to have bounced around a great deal in his last ten years or so, sometimes living with Hortense and his son, sometimes alone, sometimes in Paris and sometimes in Aix and other places. All the while he worked constantly at his paintings. When he was having difficulty with his paintings, he would often go to museums to make copies as if he were still a student.

His diabetes continued to worsen and he suffered from frequent headaches, bronchitis and other ailments. By September, 1906, he was so ill his son had to look after his affairs.
Yet he continued to paint. On October 15, he ordered two dozen brushes through young Paul. Then, while painting out of doors, he collapsed and remained in the rain for several hours. He was finally discovered and brought home in a laundry cart. He returned to his studio the next day to work on a portrait and was again brought home seriously ill. Yet he continued to try to work in his wife’s dressing room, complaining that the brushes he ordered had not been delivered.

On October 22, Cézanne’s housekeeper sent word to his son to come quickly as his father was gravely ill. Young Paul and Hortense were elsewhere and arrived too late. Cézanne died at 7:00 AM on October 23. He was 67 years old.

A year after Cézanne’s death, a large exhibition of his paintings was held in Paris. The exhibition had great impact on many leading painters, including Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Henry Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, paving the way for cubism and later developments in contemporary art. Prior to the contributions of this single-minded, obsessively-driven, reclusive curmudgeon, such things as cubism and abstract expressionism did not exist. He was a true pioneer.

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