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Cezanne - A Modern Old Master
( Article orginally published May 1952 )
One of the most extensive showings of the art of Paul Cezanne closed on March 16, at the Chicago Art Institute. It is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Over one hundred of Cezanne's most important works have been borrowed from museums and collectors of four continents for this tour. Some of the highlights of Cezanne's career are recorded in the following paragraphs.
Paul Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839. His father was a wealthy, stingy banker, strongly opposed to his son's desire to become a painter. As a boy, Cezanne's friend and schoolmate, Emile Zola, who was to become a famous novelist, encouraged him in his art, and later, as a young man, Cezanne joined Zola in Paris. Here he studied in various studios, but was never accepted at the Official Salon. Cezanne's earliest paintings show his strong, powerful, dark style in which his turbulent and dramatic imagination allowed itself full play.
Early in the 1870's Cezanne met the Impressionist painter Pissarro, who brought him a more intense study of nature. Working in Auvers, a town near Paris; Cezanne began to clarify his color, painting still lifes and landscapes which he started to exhibit with the Impressionists. His strong, original style, however, was disliked and deprecated by the critics and, after 1877 when he showed sixteen works only to receive one favorable notice, he decided to retire to Aix and "work in silence."
For almost fifteen years, Cezanne painted in lonely isolation in the South of France, exhibiting only an occasional work in Paris. He was evolving his own style based on the powerful movements and moods of nature. He painted the same subjects over and over again, most often, the gray wall of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain which dominates the Aix Valley.
He turned his back on the Impressionists and said that he wanted "to make something solid" out of the fleeting, colorful surfaces of light which Monet and Renoir had perfected. At the same time, Cezanne became a profound colorist, building up his color touch-by-touch to an amazing richness and solidity. Only the great Venetians like Titian and Veronese have ever rivaled him in his use of color.
Before, he died in 1906, Cezanne had become famous. In 1895 a young Paris dealer, Vollard, secured over one hundred-fifty works by him and staged a series of exhibitions which startled Paris. The most noted painters of the day - Degas, Renoir, Monet and Gauguin - rallied to Cezanne's side, buying his pictures and urging others to do so. Two of Cezanne's canvasses entered the Luxumbourg Museum through the famous Caillebotte bequest, though another ten by Cezanne in this collection were refused. Cezanne meanwhile stayed in Southern France, where young artists flocked to see him. His last works are among the most amazing in the principal means of expression, and his landscapes and figure pieces blaze with a strange, haunting palette.
During the last thirty years of his life Cezanne was almost a recluse and many anecdotes are related regarding his eccentricities. At times, furious with what he considered his failures, he would abandon a canvas in the fields or he would permit his small son Paul to snip doors and windows out of his paintings of homes. People who sat for their portraits found it an ordeal. Once, after 115 sittings, he remarked, "The shirtfront isn't bad," but advised his sitter to remain "still as an apple; an apple never moves." So slowly did he work in still life that he gave up real fruit for wax, and replaced actual flowers with artificial bouquets.
A special gallery in the exhibition, conceived by Katharine Kuh, was devoted to an explanation and interpretation of Cezanne's work. Three outstanding paintings by Cezanne were contrasted with equally important examples of his contemporaries, Van Gogh and Renoir. By means of various visual experiments, comparative photographs, color charts and other ingenious analytical devices, the outstanding characteristics of Cezanne's art, like monumentality and serenity, are penetratingly clarified. His technical innovations in color, line, form and composition are distinctly defined, as are his more elusive emotional subtleties.
An entire gallery of Cezanne's watercolors and two intimate sketchbooks never before displayed, filled out this memorable retrospective exhibition. As a watercolorist, Cezanne is approached only by Turner and the early Chinese, and in this medium, which permits no mistakes, Cezanne's mastery reduced the technique to its very essence. The medium permitted him to quickly capture and retain color impressions of nature, and all lines and forms spring from his color alone.
The exhibition, which took more than a year to assemble, was chosen by Mr. Rich, Director of the Art Institute, and Mr. Rousseau, Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, who between them visited museums and collectors all throughout Europe as well as sources in the United States, to choose the exact works desired. The aim has been not to show Cezanne as an influence but rather as a great master in his own right; to display his full development, starting with the early, nightmare-like imaginings of his youth, through his great classical period of the 1880's, and culminating in the blazing color and inventive forms created in his last decade.Paul Cezanne @ Web Museum
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