Paul Cezanne oil painting of a landscape with hills and buildings, painted in light colors

Paul Cézanne: One of France’s Most Influential Artists

Paul Cézanne, a name that many people have probably never heard of. Or, if they have, they don’t know much about the man himself. However, his influence is positively everywhere in art. As part of both the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, his work spans over decades. In that long amount of time, it is no surprise his varied body of work inspired many forms of art.

In his time, he was ridiculed. His art was seen as ugly, something to be mocked and made fun of. However, it did not take long after his death for people to realize the genius behind his works. And so, more than ever, people began to use his works as inspiration. Now, in the modern day, his influence, as well as his own talent, is properly acknowledged.

This post serves as a tribute to the man and his works. That, as well as an examination of his influence on the world of art as a whole.

Black and white photograph of Paul Cezanne
Paul-Cezanne, photographer unknown, September 12, 1899, PD US expired, found on Wikimedia Commons

Brief History of Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne was born in the year 1839. His place of birth was Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. Paul Cézanne would often return to this area throughout his life, both to live and to paint there. He was the son of a financier and lawyer, and a successful one at that. The man was strict and had always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Paul Cézanne, obviously, had other ideas, and became a painter. This would be a continuing source of grief and stress in his life, causing a strained relationship with his parents. Despite this, however, he was still financially dependent on his parents for as long as they were alive. (The Art Story Foundation)

In 1872, Cézanne’s son was born. His mistress, Hortense Cézanne nee-Fiquet was the mother. The two of them would often appear in his artwork as subjects. In 1886, she would officially become his wife rather than his mistress. In the same year, his parents had also passed away. (The Art Story Foundation)

By the early 1890s, Cézanne’s mental and physical health was beginning to deteriorate. Diabetes was affecting his body, but also causing his mood to darken, causing strain on his relationships. (artincontext.org) As he was nearing the end of his life, he was mostly alone. He spent the remaining twenty years painting out in Aix. On October 22nd, 1906, Paul Cézanne passed away due to contracting pneumonia. He died in his hometown, in which he was also buried.

His Artistic Traning

His training began in Aix back in 1859, when he would take night classes for drawing. Just a couple of years later, in 1861, he would move to Paris alongside his at the time good friend Emile Zola. The now famous author was also born in Aix, and the two had been part of a small group called “The Inseparables” which had kickstarted their friendship. (The Art Story Foundation)

When reaching Paris, Cézanne tried to be accepted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts school in Paris but was rejected twice. So, he turned to copying master painters’ art in the Louvre instead so he could hone his skills. At this time, he would also take figure drawing classes with other young artists. Among them were painters such as Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, artists who would become major players in the Impressionist movement that Cézanne would be a part of. (The Art Story Foundation)

His Artistic Timeline in Brief

His early work was defined by thick brushstrokes and dark colors, the opposite of the Impressionist movement’s lighter colors and strokes. This changed when he spent time in L’Estaque in the south of France with Pissarro. (artincontext.org) At the time he was there, the other artists, as well as the scenery, influenced the way in which he made art. He changed his color palette to the more pastoral one used by most Impressionists. He also traded in his thicker impasto style for something lighter.

While in the Impressionist movement, he took part in two of their exhibitions but faced harsh criticism and mockery of his works. It led him to paint elsewhere, like his hometown of Aix, very rarely coming back to Paris.

Cézanne would slowly move away from Impressionist influences and techniques, creating his own unique way of looking at and painting subjects. He would look at something from every direction, analyzing the object in an intense way. His art moved away from the fleeting, light style of Impressionism, and went towards something more structural and “real”. Cézanne would work in this style until the time of his death. (artincontext.org)

Dark still life painting with thick brushstrokes, features tableware and fruit
Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup, Paul Cezanne, 1866, PD-Art (PD-old-70), PD US, found on Wikimedia Commons

Dark Period and Impressionism

Paul Cézanne’s very early works were quite different from anything else he ever made. These pieces were made with gloomy and dark colors, giving many of his pieces a depressive feel. The color black was especially in use in his works at the time. The paintings were also made with very thick strokes. He would sometimes achieve this effect using a palette knife to lay colors onto the canvas. The works during this time period were not just dark in appearance, however, but in subject matter as well. Especially later on during this phase, he would draw from brutal and sexual themes. (artincontext.org)

As mentioned, this started to change when Cézanne started to take influence from his fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro. The man considered Pissarro his mentor, and at this time he was a great source of knowledge and inspiration for Cézanne.

However, it was not all smooth sailing within the Impressionist movement. He had a hard time fitting in initially with his more somber artwork. He was a bit of an outcast amongst the group, seeming anti-social. Even after his art shifted, he continued to be ridiculed by critics, and it had a very negative effect on him. However, his reasons for moving away from Impressionism were the same as many others in the movement. That is, he began to see limited creative potential in it. He wanted to paint something more “real” and tangible than what the Impressionists did. He moved away from the fleeting nature and style of Impressionism and moved towards something heavier and more structural. (artincontext.org)

Oil painting of nude bathers, male and female, surrounded by a lush forest
Study of Bathers, Paul Cezanne, 1898, PD US, PD-Art (PD-old-70), found on Wikimedia Commons

Post-Impressionism

It was Paul Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist works that had the greatest influence. During this part of his life, he found his own style. To gain that “real” and permanent feel that he wanted, he would heavily inspect the subjects he painted. It was as if he looked at something from every angle, carefully considering every view he had. Cézanne was aiming to, in his own words, create a picture rather than paint it. He had moved away from mindlessly copying what lied in front of him. Cézanne was said to have “read the essence” of an object and expressed it on the canvas. (artincontext.org)  He wanted to focus on form and color, as well as perspective.

As time went on, into the late 1880s and 90s, his art began to shift even more. The colors became more muted. Light and shadow were no longer there but instead replaced with gradations of different colors. He moved away from the traditional one-point perspective for his still life paintings. The objects all had their space in the composition, and the focus was their relationship to one another. (Voorhies, 2004) His still life paintings had become more two-dimensional, another way to emphasize form and color over all else.

In his last years as an artist, his work started to become more abstract. He became reclusive, painting in a hut he had rented. His subject matter was only the Aix landscape, still lives, and bather studies. The first and last of those are particularly notable and well-remembered from this period.

His focus on the inner essence of an object, as achieved through brushwork and color, was what made his Post-Impressionism art so influential.

An abstract Cubist painting, mainly in Blue, made with oil paint
Abstraction, Juan Gris, 1915, reproduction from gAF3ZI1JCH0N7A at Google Cultural Institute, PD-old-80-expired, CC-PD-Mark, found on Wikimedia Commons

His Influence on Art Movements and Artists

One movement he had a large influence on is the Fauvists. His experimentation with linework, space, form, and especially color can clearly be seen within their works. Matisse’s own work was even compared to Cézanne’s during the Fauves exhibition at the Salon des Independents. The energy and abstraction of Cézanne’s forms and lines are prominent in the works of Matisse and the other Fauvists. (artincontext.org)

Arguably his strongest influence on any art movement was with Cubism. The artists who were a part of Cubism took heavy inspiration from the way in which he approached form in his works. He had a flat, two-dimensional quality to his paintings that was supplemented by the complicated form of perspective he used for painting each object. He would capture subjects in strong, geometrical shapes. These aspects of his work had a huge impact on artists, including the famed artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso and others would take his techniques to a new level. The fractured forms of many Cubist paintings came directly from Cézanne’s methods but taken up a notch. (artincontext.org)

Unfortunately, most of this admiration for his work was only around when he was no longer around to hear it.

The Reception of Paul Cézanne’s Art

As mentioned earlier in the article, Paul Cézanne’s works were not appreciated for the majority of the time he was alive. He faced harsh criticism for all periods of his art, from his early Impressionist period to his more experimental later periods. Even amongst his own peers, he seemed to be a bit of an outcast. He was seen as anti-social and resentful and, overall, very depressed. (The Art Story Foundation) He continued to receive nothing but negativity and slander throughout all of his exhibitions with the Impressionists.

Later on in his life, his works were extremely poorly received by the people of his own hometown, Aix. A harsh critic had seen his work at an auction, calling his piece “Love for the Ugly”. Even worse, he reported that people were outright laughing at the Cézanne pieces being displayed. The critic essentially mocked him. This, in turn, had led to the people of Aix acting cruelly towards him. They left copies of the review on his own doorstep, calling him a disgrace and telling him to leave town. (artincontext.org)

These attacks would greatly depress Cézanne. They were even what drove him out of Paris back into the south of France. As shown above, however, it did not save him from the harshness of audiences and critics.

However, things would eventually change for Cézanne’s reputation. Like many artists, a reevaluation of his works came too late. They held a posthumous exhibition in 1907, a year after he had died. This exhibition was visited by many young artists who were enchanted by his works. Cézanne’s paintings had finally reached an understanding and loving audience. One that would give them the praise they deserved. One that would take his techniques and expand upon them in new and interesting ways.

The Triumphant Legacy of Paul Cézanne

It may seem weird to describe Paul Cézanne’s legacy as triumphant. Throughout all of his life, his works were never given proper respect. He was mocked, ridiculed, looked down upon. His relationships with family and friends deteriorated and he was at one point hated by his own hometown. Paul Cézanne lived his final years as a recluse and died without his work achieving any kind of success.

However, what his works did not receive in his lifetime they received ten-fold in the decades after. Paul Cézanne, with his unique Post-Impressionist style, impacted multiple artists and art movements. His art did so in a unique way, too. The Fauvists used his sense of energy and made their work non-representational by messing with color and line. The Cubists took his approach to form and twisted it and turned it to its most extreme form.

Pablo Picasso declared him “the parent of all of us”, and art historians would agree. (artincontext.org) His influence permeates through many if not all of the modernist art movements. In his time, people would have scoffed at the idea of him becoming such an influential artist. Paul Cézanne himself may not have even believed it after all of his bad luck with audiences. Thankfully, that idea has been proven wrong. Shortly after his death, and now, people are finally giving him the respect he deserves. After all of these years, the man who went through such pain can finally be looked at with admiration. He can be rightfully acknowledged as a major player in art history. Not bad for a man who only ever did a single solo show for his works.

It is unfortunate that, like many artists, he cannot experience the popularity of his works. But, if nothing else, the popularity is better late than never.

References:

The Art Story Foundation. (n.d.). Paul Cézanne paintings, Bio, ideas. The Art Story. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/cezanne-paul/

“Fauvism – The Origins, Artworks, and Artists of the Fauve Movement.” Artincontext.org, Artincontext.org, 8 Apr. 2022, https://artincontext.org/fauvism/

artincontext.org. (2022, May 31). Paul Cézanne – An Artistic Biography of the Famous Post-Impressionist. artincontext.org. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://artincontext.org/paul-cezanne/

Voorhies, James. “Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pcez/hd_pcez.htm (October 2004)

 

 

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