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paul cezanne

Happy Birthday, Paul Cézanne, Influential French Painter

January 19, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne was born in Aix en Provence, a charming and provincial part of southern France that dominated his body of work. Even though he struggled to find a personal style and gain acceptance by the Impressionist movement, Cézanne would become known as a provocateur of modernism.

Early Days

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Cézanne was born on Jan. 19, 1839, in Aix, a quiet town in southern France. Aix was where he spent his childhood, and would later serve as a crucial theme in his paintings. Together with his friends, including future French novelist Emile Zola, Cézanne trekked through the nearby countryside, diving into rivers and exploring canyons and pine groves, according to the Web site of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Cézanne’s “affective bond” with the landscape of Provence was evident in works seen over the course of his career.

After a brief stint studying law, he left for Paris in 1861 to focus on art. Initially, Cézanne’s style was “energetic” and “rugged,” as he used a palette knife to apply “a dark heavily impastoed paint.” This particular style was influenced by Gustave Courbet, a painter who Cézanne met in Paris, and featured an “appreciation for vigorous paint handling” that is distinctly Provencal. Although his style would change, and although Cézanne learned how to paint in Paris, “he never adopted the city as his own,” and made repeated trips back to Provence, eventually resettling in the region in the 1880s, the National Gallery explains.

While in Paris, Cézanne became friends with painters leading the Impressionist movement, a style that typically features “short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light,” according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Impressionist paintings often seem effortless, but are actually meticulously composed. 

In 1869, he met Hortense Fiquet in Paris. The two would have a son, Paul, but did not marry until 17 years later, on April 28, 1886, according to Aix en Provence Office of Tourism.

Notable Accomplishments

PBS, which produced a program titled “The Life of Paul Cézanne” in 2006, provides background on the artist’s affection for the French countryside of his youth. “Provence was Cézanne’s country: he was at home there as nowhere else,” and he used that landscape to paint what are considered among “the most remarkable and original images in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century art.”

PBS has an image gallery featuring several of Cézanne’s most celebrated paintings, including a self-portrait and “Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque.”

The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., holds many of Cézanne’s works, including paintings and drawings, which are also listed online.

Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro is considered one of Cézanne’s most important influences and closest confidants. In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted an exhibit titled “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885,” which presented work by the duo “in the context of their artistic relationship.” View works from the exhibit on MoMA’s Web site to get a feel for “the parallel creative paths” of the two painters. 

Some have made the case that Cézanne was not a true Impressionist. According to Kimberly Walton for Empty Easel, Claude Monet “painted like an Impressionist; the image was carried in his mind before he actually painted it,” whereas Cézanne “used a more mechanical, uniform technique, and even avoided the intimacy of Impressionism.”

The Rest of the Story

Cézanne painted “The Bridge of Maincy” between 1882-85. The work was “among the first masterpieces” of his then newly acquired personal style, which he discovered later than many of his colleagues, according to Impressioniste.net.

Cézanne became better known late in life. A retrospective of his work, spearheaded by a young art dealer named Ambroise Vollard, was exhibited in 1895. Prior to that, Cézanne was rejected by the Paris Official Salon and ill received at exhibitions of Impressionist work. According to Impressioniste.net, the retrospective revealed Cézanne’s “evolution” to his “former friends” and to many younger artists.

UNESCO describes Cézanne’s later life as “increasingly solitary” artistically, while he became among the most noted “forerunners of modern painting.” Beyond his ability to play with light and paint precisely what he viewed in the natural world, Cézanne “introduced a new conception of colour, which heralded Cubism.”

Ultimately, Cézanne worked toward making Impressionism “something solid and enduring like the art of museums,” explains the Tate museum, which features an online collection of the artist’s work. As he grew older, Cézanne worked in Provence, mostly at L’Estaque and Aix, where he passed away in 1906.

According to Arts of Innovation, in the days preceding his death, “Cézanne was still frustrated, uneasy about his skills, unsure of his accomplishments, endlessly seeking to inch his way toward an impenetrable goal.”

Even so, in his 50s and 60s, Cézanne is considered to have painted his best works, the “most innovative and successful” of his paintings. This work proved extremely influential to future greats, including Picasso, who said Cézanne was “My one and only master” and “like the father of us all.”
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