Art not publicity was his goal

“Still Life with Apples and Oranges” 1895-1900, Paul Cezanne, collection the Louvre, Paris. 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches.

     “I curse the b******* who for the sake of writing an article for fifty francs, drew the attention of the public to me.  All my life I have worked to be able to earn my living, but I thought that one could do good painting without attracting attention to one’s private life.  To be sure an artist wishes to raise his standard intellectually as much as possible, but the man must remain in obscurity.”  These are the words of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906).

     Cezanne’s whole life was dedicated to art.  Almost every day he strode out across the French countryside with rolls of canvas and a box of paints and brushes strapped to his back, in search of landscape subjects.   In the studio, he painted portraits of his friends and family, as well as still lifes, often painting the same subjects over and over until he felt he had accomplished what he wanted.  Sometimes he became so frustrated he would slash his canvas with a palette knife or throw the offending painting out of a window.  In his letters and journals one note of discontent is continually repeated:  “I am not very satisfied.”

     Although he was possessed of a towering talent and was completely assured as an artist, his personality was a puzzle.  He was often referred to as a “hermit,” isolating himself to paint and sometimes avoiding or being deliberately rude to strangers who showed too much interest in what he was doing.  He could be charming and intellectual at times, and at other times acted like an uneducated peasant — slurping his soup, swearing, and generally behaving badly.  The discrepancy between the artist and the man mystified his friends and has intrigued scholars ever since. 

     For all of his life Cezanne alternately reached out to people and thrust them away.  He said he did not want anybody “to get his hooks into me.”  He meant this so literally that he developed a morbid fear of being touched.  Once when a friend put a hand on his arm during a conversation, Cezanne exploded in rage.  He apologized just as quickly.  “Don’t pay any attention, “he said sadly, “these things happen in spite of me.”

     However, Cezanne was also a gracious and giving man.  The artist Renoir remembered an 1882 visit to Cezanne with great pleasure.  “I cannot tell you how kind Cezanne has been to me,” he wrote a friend.  “He wanted to bring me his entire house.”  The two artists often painted outdoors together, and Renoir noticed that if Cezanne was dissatisfied with a painting, he would simply abandon it on the ground wherever he happened to be painting.  One day when Renoir was walking in the hills, he stumbled upon a “magnificent watercolor by Cezanne.”  Cezanne had thrown it away, Renoir later recalled, after spending 20 sessions on it.

“Bather” 1885–1887, Paul Cezanne, Museum of Modern Art.

     Although Cezanne didn’t care for publicity about himself or his personal life, he longed for his artwork to be recognized.  Every year he submitted paintings to the Salon, and every year his work was rejected.  His paintings were simply too powerful and unique for the judges, which preferred historical or literary subjects, depicted naturalistically.   No one had ever seen work like his before, with its strong lines, arbitrary color, and expressive brushstrokes.  During his career, he was called a madman and an anarchist.  Few major artists of the 19th Century were so widely misunderstood.  Some thought he was a fraud; others, although granting that he had integrity, said his work was little more than “sincere daubing.”             

     What disturbed his friends and raised the scorn of his critics were the deformities and distortions of form that were part of his style.  Lopsided jars and bottles, precariously slanting floors and tables, and inequalities between one part of an object or another startled those who viewed Cezanne’s paintings.  Some of this arose from his strong feeling that the entire painting must be unified even if objects looked unrealistic.  His treatment of space also accounts for the distortions.  His pictures aren’t governed by the laws of perspective or controlled by a single vanishing point.  Our eyes are directed into the subject along various lines of advance.  He gave each object identical significance so that no one thing was more important than another, and all things are connected to one another with color.

     Cezanne is now considered one of the founders of modern painting.  No matter what he chose to paint, he could convey its essence by eliminating details and reducing the subject to its most basic form.  His work falls somewhere between simple representation and pure abstraction.  He used color in an unconventional way, used geometric shapes to express the simple forms of nature, and handled space as no one ever had before.  Eventually, he taught the world to see in a new way.       

     His dedication to his art set an example that lasts to this day.  Picasso said of him, “What matters is not what the artist does but what he is.  What is of interest to us is Cezanne’s restless striving — that is what he teaches us.”

Published by on November 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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