Paul Cézanne, 1839–1906

CÉZANNE, PAUL (1839-1906)

Who was Paul Cézanne?


Paul Cézanne was born on January 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence, France and died in his home in Aix at age 67 on October 23, 1906. Although born out of wedlock, Cézanne was acknowledged by his father, a hatter turned wealthy banker. Cézanne’s parents were married in Aix a few years after his birth.

In 1857, at the age of 18, Cézanne enrolled at the École Gratuite de Dessin (free drawing school) in Aix. At the encouragement of his father, Cézanne attended law school. He dropped out in 1861 to travel to Paris pursue his art. While in Paris he attended a private art school, the Académie Suisse (Claude Monet attended the same school). Despite the submission of a variety of his work, Cézanne’s paintings were never accepted by the traditional and prestigious French Salon.

Cézanne worked in Aix and Paris for many years. Cézanne refused to enlist in the French army during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and was considered a draft-dodger. He fathered a son born in 1872, with Hortense Fiquet, whom he married several years later.

1886-90 Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Gardanne oil on canvas 62.5 x 91 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.cezanne-1880

Cézanne’s work found favor with the Impressionists, and he displayed three paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Although generally a solitary man, Cézanne was close friends with some of the other Impressionists. Camille Pisarro was Cézanne’s most consistent supporter from 1861 onward; Cézanne was named one of the executors of Pissaro’s will. Cézanne and Claude Monet were also good friends, and greatly admired one another’s work. His fellow artists frequently commented on the clarity and elegance of his varied subjects. Cézanne had an uncanny ability to juxtapose various forms, colours, and textures into a unified composition. Monet, as well as Edgar Degas and Paul Gaugin all included Cézanne’s paintings in their collections.

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Despite his friendships, Cézanne was wary of the world and spent most of his life in relative isolation. He wrote, “I should remain alone, people’s cunning is such that I can’t get away from it, it’s theft, conceit, infatuation, rape, seizure of your production, and yet nature is very beautiful.” – from a letter to his son, also named Paul, September 28, 1906. His childhood friend, the famous French writer Emile Zola, with whom he carried on an active correspondence, was a significant influence in his life. Cézanne was characterized as private and frequently misunderstood. Painting was an obsession. Just before his death he complained to his son, “ I live a bit as if in a void. Painting is what matters most to me.” His last visit to Paris was in 1904 and he died two years later.

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Cézanne aimed to transform the Impressionist style of painting into something more concrete. He was an important bridge from the Impressionists to more modern forms of art. Like the other Impressionists, Cézanne believed it imperative not to copy an object, but to depict the sensations it created. He said, “to paint is to register these color sensations.” He painted an unusally wide variety of subject matter, from portraiture, to landscape, to still life. Cézanne’s style of painting was quite different from that of some of the other Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet and his brush strokes were more deliberate than those of many of his impressionist contemporaries.

Cézanne’s Myopia: A Shortcut to Abstraction?


Although perhaps only coincidence, a large number of the Impressionist painters were “nearsighted” (ie. myopes). For example, Cézanne, and Renoir both suffered from and appeared to exploit the blur induced by their myopia in their work. Renoir was known to step back from the canvas so that it was out of focus. Cézanne, when offered spectacles raged, “take away those vulgar things!” Arguably, the sharp focus produced by corrective lenses worked against the global abstract style that the Impressionists sought to achieve. In short, uncorrected myopia may have offered a “shortcut” to abstracting the general forms and colors of the scene being painted.

In 1890, at age 51, Cézanne was diagnosed with diabetes which is speculated may have induced some concurrent retinopathy. Later, as he entered his 60s, Cézanne began to complain of “cerebral disturbances” that prevented him from moving about freely. The extent and nature of these cerebral disturbances, however, is unclear.

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