Paul Cézanne genius

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Paul Cézanne  (1839-1906)

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Aix-en-Provence, France
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Aix-en-Provence, France
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We live in a rainbow of chaos.

Paul Cézanne was a French artist and Post-Impressionist painter whose work laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th-century conception of artistic endeavor to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century.

Cézanne is said to have formed the bridge between late 19th-century Impressionism and the early 20th century's new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism. Cézanne's often repetitive, exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic and clearly recognizable. He used planes of colour and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields. The paintings convey Cézanne's intense study of his subjects. Both Matisse and Picasso are said to have remarked that Cézanne "is the father of us all".

Life and work

Early years and family

The Cézannes came from the commune of Saint-Sauveur Hautes-Alpes, Occitania. Paul Cézanne was born on 19 January 1839 in Aix-en-Provence. On 22 February, he was baptized in the Église de la Madeleine, with his grandmother and uncle Louis as godparents, and became a devout Catholic later in life. His father, Louis Auguste Cézanne 1798–1886, a native of Saint-Zacharie Var, was the co-founder of a banking firm Banque Cézanne et Cabassol that prospered throughout the artist's life, affording him financial security that was unavailable to most of his contemporaries and eventually resulting in a large inheritance.

His mother, Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert 1814–1897, was "vivacious and romantic, but quick to take offence". It was from her that Cézanne got his conception and vision of life. He also had two younger sisters, Marie and Rose, with whom he went to a primary school every day.

Femme au Chapeau Vert (Woman in a Green Hat, Madame Cézanne) 1894–1895

At the age of ten Cézanne entered the Saint Joseph school in Aix. In 1852 Cézanne entered the Collège Bourbon in Aix now Collège Mignet, where he became friends with Émile Zola, who was in a less advanced class, as well as Baptistin Baille—three friends who came to be known as "Les Trois Inséparables" The Three Inseparables. He stayed there for six years, though in the last two years he was a day scholar. In 1857, he began attending the Free Municipal School of Drawing in Aix, where he studied drawing under Joseph Gibert, a Spanish monk. From 1858 to 1861, complying with his father's wishes, Cézanne attended the law school of the University of Aix, while also receiving drawing lessons.

Going against the objections of his banker father, he committed himself to pursue his artistic development and left Aix for Paris in 1861. He was strongly encouraged to make this decision by Zola, who was already living in the capital at the time. Eventually, his father reconciled with Cézanne and supported his choice of career. Cézanne later received an inheritance of 400,000 francs from his father, which rid him of all financial worries.

Artistic style

In Paris, Cézanne met the Impressionist Camille Pissarro. Initially the friendship formed in the mid-1860s between Pissarro and Cézanne was that of master and disciple, in which Pissarro exerted a formative influence on the younger artist. Over the course of the following decade their landscape painting excursions together, in Louveciennes and Pontoise, led to a collaborative working relationship between equals.

Les joueurs de cartes (The Card Players), 1892–1895, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Cézanne's early work is often concerned with the figure in the landscape and includes many paintings of groups of large, heavy figures in the landscape, imaginatively painted. Later in his career, he became more interested in working from direct observation and gradually developed a light, airy painting style. Nevertheless, in Cézanne's mature work there is the development of a solidified, almost architectural style of painting. Throughout his life he struggled to develop an authentic observation of the seen world by the most accurate method of representing it in paint that he could find. To this end, he structurally ordered whatever he perceived into simple forms and colour planes. His statement "I want to make of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums", and his contention that he was recreating Poussin "after nature" underscored his desire to unite observation of nature with the permanence of classical composition.

Optical phenomena

Cézanne was interested in the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials: he wanted to "treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone" a tree trunk may be conceived of as a cylinder, an apple or orange a sphere, for example. Additionally, Cézanne's desire to capture the truth of perception led him to explore binocular vision graphically, rendering slightly different, yet simultaneous visual perceptions of the same phenomena to provide the viewer with an aesthetic experience of depth different from those of earlier ideals of perspective, in particular single-point perspective. His interest in new ways of modelling space and volume derived from the stereoscopy obsession of his era and from reading Hippolyte Taine’s Berkelean theory of spatial perception. Cézanne's innovations have prompted critics to suggest such varied explanations as sick retinas, pure vision, and the influence of the steam railway.

Exhibitions and subjects

Cézanne's paintings were shown in the first exhibition of the Salon des Refusés in 1863, which displayed works not accepted by the jury of the official Paris Salon. The Salon rejected Cézanne's submissions every year from 1864 to 1869. He continued to submit works to the Salon until 1882. In that year, through the intervention of fellow artist Antoine Guillemet, he exhibited Portrait de M. L. A., probably Portrait of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, The Artist's Father, Reading "L'Événement", 1866 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., his first and last successful submission to the Salon.

Before 1895 Cézanne exhibited twice with the Impressionists at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877. In later years a few individual paintings were shown at various venues, until 1895, when the Parisian dealer, Ambroise Vollard, gave the artist his first solo exhibition. Despite the increasing public recognition and financial success, Cézanne chose to work in increasing artistic isolation, usually painting in the south of France, in his beloved Provence, far from Paris.

Still Life with a Curtain (1895) illustrates Cézanne's increasing trend towards terse compression of forms and dynamic tension between geometric figures.

He concentrated on a few subjects and was equally proficient in each of these genres: still lifes, portraits, landscapes and studies of bathers. For the last, Cézanne was compelled to design from his imagination, due to a lack of available nude models. Like the landscapes, his portraits were drawn from that which was familiar, so that not only his wife and son but local peasants, children and his art dealer served as subjects. His still lifes are at once decorative in design, painted with thick, flat surfaces, yet with a weight reminiscent of Gustave Courbet. The 'props' for his works are still to be found, as he left them, in his studio atelier, in the suburbs of modern Aix.

Cézanne's paintings were not well received among the petty bourgeoisie of Aix. In 1903 Henri Rochefort visited the auction of paintings that had been in Zola's possession and published on 9 March 1903 in L'Intransigeant a highly critical article entitled "Love for the Ugly". Rochefort describes how spectators had supposedly experienced laughing fits, when seeing the paintings of "an ultra-impressionist named Cézanne". The public in Aix was outraged, and for many days, copies of L'Intransigeant appeared on Cézanne's door-mat with messages asking him to leave the town "he was dishonouring".


One day, Cézanne was caught in a storm while working in the field. After working for two hours he decided to go home; but on the way he collapsed. He was taken home by a passing driver. His old housekeeper rubbed his arms and legs to restore the circulation; as a result, he regained consciousness. 

On the following day, he intended to continue working, but later on he fainted; the model with whom he was working called for help; he was put to bed, and he never left it. He died a few days later, on 22 October 1906 of pneumonia and was buried at the Saint-Pierre Cemetery in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

Main periods of Cézanne's work

Various periods in the work and life of Cézanne have been defined.

Dark period, Paris, 1861–1870

In 1863 Napoleon III created by decree the Salon des Refusés, at which paintings rejected for display at the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts were to be displayed. The artists of the refused works included the young Impressionists, who were considered revolutionary. Cézanne was influenced by their style but his social relations with them were inept—he seemed rude, shy, angry, and given to depression. His works of this period are characterized by dark colours and the heavy use of black. They differ sharply from his earlier watercolours and sketches at the École Spéciale de dessin at Aix-en-Provence in 1859, and their violence of expression is in contrast to his subsequent works.

In 1866–67, inspired by the example of Courbet, Cézanne painted a series of paintings with a palette knife. He later called these works, mostly portraits, une couillarde "a coarse word for ostentatious virility". Lawrence Gowing has written that Cézanne's palette knife phase "was not only the invention of modern expressionism, although it was incidentally that; the idea of art as emotional ejaculation made its first appearance at this moment".

Among the couillarde paintings are a series of portraits of his uncle Dominique in which Cézanne achieved a style that "was as unified as Impressionism was fragmentary". Later works of the dark period include several erotic or violent subjects, such as Women Dressing c. 1867, The Rape c. 1867, and The Murder c. 1867–68, which depicts a man stabbing a woman who is held down by his female accomplice.

Impressionist period, Provence and Paris, 1870–1878

After the start of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, Cézanne and his mistress, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, left Paris for L'Estaque, near Marseille, where he changed themes to predominantly landscapes. He was declared a draft dodger in January 1871, but the war ended the next month, in February, and the couple moved back to Paris, in the summer of 1871. After the birth of their son Paul in January 1872, in Paris, they moved to Auvers in Val-d'Oise near Paris. Cézanne's mother was kept a party to family events, but his father was not informed of Hortense for fear of risking his wrath. The artist received from his father a monthly allowance of 100 francs.

Camille Pissarro lived in Pontoise. There and in Auvers he and Cézanne painted landscapes together. For a long time afterwards, Cézanne described himself as Pissarro's pupil, referring to him as "God the Father", as well as saying: "We all stem from Pissarro." Under Pissarro's influence Cézanne began to abandon dark colours and his canvases grew much brighter.

Jas de Bouffan, 1876

Leaving Hortense in the Marseille region, Cézanne moved between Paris and Provence, exhibiting in the first 1874 and third Impressionist shows 1877. In 1875, he attracted the attention of the collector Victor Chocquet, whose commissions provided some financial relief. But Cézanne's exhibited paintings attracted hilarity, outrage, and sarcasm. Reviewer Louis Leroy said of Cézanne's portrait of Chocquet: "This peculiar looking head, the colour of an old boot might give a shock and cause yellow fever in the fruit of her womb before its entry into the world."

In March 1878, Cézanne's father found out about Hortense and threatened to cut Cézanne off financially, but, in September, he relented and decided to give him 400 francs for his family. Cézanne continued to migrate between the Paris region and Provence until Louis-Auguste had a studio built for him at his home, Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, in the early 1880s. This was on the upper floor, and an enlarged window was provided, allowing in the northern light but interrupting the line of the eaves; this feature remains. Cézanne stabilized his residence in L'Estaque. He painted with Renoir there in 1882 and visited Renoir and Monet in 1883.

Mature period, Provence, 1878–1890

In the early 1880s the Cézanne family stabilized their residence in Provence where they remained, except for brief sojourns abroad, from then on. The move reflects a new independence from the Paris-centered impressionists and a marked preference for the south, Cézanne's native soil. Hortense's brother had a house within view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire at Estaque. A run of paintings of this mountain from 1880 to 1883 and others of Gardanne from 1885 to 1888 are sometimes known as "the Constructive Period".

The year 1886 was a turning point for the family. Cézanne married Hortense. In that year also, Cézanne's father died, leaving him the estate purchased in 1859; he was 47. By 1888 the family was in the former manor, Jas de Bouffan, a substantial house and grounds with outbuildings, which afforded a new-found comfort. This house, with much-reduced grounds, is now owned by the city and is open to the public on a restricted basis.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca.1887, Courtauld Institute of Art

For many years it was believed that Cézanne broke off his friendship with Émile Zola, after the latter used him, in large part, as the basis for the unsuccessful and ultimately tragic fictitious artist Claude Lantier, in the novel L'Œuvre.

Recently letters have been discovered that refute this. A letter from 1887 demonstrates that their friendship did endure for at least some time after.

Final period, Provence, 1890–1906

Cézanne's idyllic period at Jas de Bouffan was temporary. From 1890 until his death he was beset by troubling events and he withdrew further into his painting, spending long periods as a virtual recluse. His paintings became well-known and sought after and he was the object of respect from a new generation of painters.

The problems began with the onset of diabetes in 1890, destabilizing his personality to the point where relationships with others were again strained. He traveled in Switzerland, with Hortense and his son, perhaps hoping to restore their relationship. Cézanne, however, returned to Provence to live; Hortense and Paul junior, to Paris. Financial need prompted Hortense's return to Provence but in separate living quarters. Cézanne moved in with his mother and sister. In 1891 he turned to Catholicism.

Pyramid of Skulls, c. 1901, The dramatic resignation to death informs several still life paintings Cézanne made in his final period between 1898 and 1905 which take the skulls as their subject.

Cézanne alternated between painting at Jas de Bouffan and in the Paris region, as before. In 1895, he made a germinal visit to Bibémus Quarries and climbed Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The labyrinthine landscape of the quarries must have struck a note, as he rented a cabin there in 1897 and painted extensively from it. The shapes are believed to have inspired the embryonic "Cubist" style. Also in that year, his mother died, an upsetting event but one which made reconciliation with his wife possible. He sold the empty nest at Jas de Bouffan and rented a place on Rue Boulegon, where he built a studio.

The relationship, however, continued to be stormy. He needed a place to be by himself. In 1901 he bought some land along the Chemin des Lauves, an isolated road on some high ground at Aix, and commissioned a studio to be built there now open to the public. He moved there in 1903. Meanwhile, in 1902, he had drafted a will excluding his wife from his estate and leaving everything to his son. The relationship was apparently off again; she is said to have burned the mementos of his mother.

From 1903 to the end of his life he painted in his studio, working for a month in 1904 with Émile Bernard, who stayed as a house guest. After his death it became a monument, Atelier Paul Cézanne, or les Lauves.

"Cézanne's Doubt": essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Cézanne's stylistic approaches and beliefs regarding how to paint were analyzed and written about by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who is primarily known for his association with phenomenology and existentialism. In his 1945 essay entitled "Cézanne's Doubt", Merleau-Ponty discusses how Cézanne gave up classic artistic elements such as pictorial arrangements, single view perspectives, and outlines that enclosed color in an attempt to get a "lived perspective" by capturing all the complexities that an eye observes. He wanted to see and sense the objects he was painting, rather than think about them. Ultimately, he wanted to get to the point where "sight" was also "touch". He would take hours sometimes to put down a single stroke because each stroke needed to contain "the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style". A still life might have taken Cézanne one hundred working sessions while a portrait took him around one hundred and fifty sessions. Cèzanne believed that while he was painting, he was capturing a moment in time, that once passed, could not come back. The atmosphere surrounding what he was painting was a part of the sensational reality he was painting. Cèzanne claimed: "Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting."


Cézanne's works were rejected numerous times by the official Salon in Paris and ridiculed by art critics when exhibited with the Impressionists. Yet during his lifetime Cézanne was considered a master by younger artists who visited his studio in Aix.

View of the 1904 Salon d'Automne, photograph by Ambroise Vollard, Salle Cézanne (Victor Choquet, Baigneuses, etc.)

Along with the work of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, the work of Cézanne, with its sense of immediacy and incompletion, critically influenced Matisse and others prior to Fauvism and Expressionism. After Cézanne died in 1906, his paintings were exhibited in a large museum-like retrospective in Paris, September 1907. The 1907 Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne greatly affected the direction that the avant-garde in Paris took, lending credence to his position as one of the most influential artists of the 19th century and to the advent of Cubism.

Inspired by Cézanne, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger wrote:

Cézanne is one of the greatest of those who changed the course of art history . . . From him we have learned that to alter the coloring of an object is to alter its structure. His work proves without doubt that painting is not—or not any longer—the art of imitating an object by lines and colors, but of giving plastic [solid, but alterable] form to our nature. (Du "Cubisme", 1912)

Ernest Hemingway compared his writing to Cézanne’s landscapes. As he describes in A Moveable Feast, I was "learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them."

Cézanne's explorations of geometric simplification and optical phenomena inspired Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, Gleizes, Gris and others to experiment with ever more complex views of the same subject and eventually to the fracturing of form. Cézanne thus sparked one of the most revolutionary areas of artistic enquiry of the 20th century, one which was to affect profoundly the development of modern art. Picasso referred to Cézanne as "the father of us all" and claimed him as "my one and only master!" Other painters such as Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Kasimir Malevich, Georges Rouault, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse acknowledged Cézanne's genius.

Cézanne's painting The Boy in the Red Vest was stolen from a Swiss museum in 2008. It was recovered in a Serbian police raid in 2012.

The 2016 film Cézanne and I explores the friendship between the artist and Émile Zola.

Art market

On 10 May 1999, Cézanne's painting Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier sold for $60.5 million, the fourth-highest price paid for a painting up to that time. As of 2006, it was the most expensive still life ever sold at an auction. One of Cézanne's The Card Players was sold in 2011 to the Royal Family of Qatar for a price variously estimated at between $250 million $284.1 million today and possibly as high as $300 million $341 million today, either price signifying a new mark for highest price for a painting up to that date. The record price was surpassed in November 2017 by Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi.

Nazi-looted art

In 2000 French courts ordered the seizure of Cézanne's “The sea at l’Estaque” which was part of the “From Fra Angelico to Bonnard: masterpieces from the Rau Collection” exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg because of a claim that it had been looted by Nazis from the gallery owner Josse Bernheim-Jeune.

In 2020 the provenance of a Cézanne from the Buehrle collection came under scrunity. The painting, Paysage, had already been flagged as potentially problematic in the 2015 Schwarzbuch Bührle: Raubkunst für das Kunsthaus Zürich?. In Die Wochenzeitung, Keller said the provenance of Paysage had been "whitewashed". "Among Keller’s objections to the provenance description on the foundation’s website is the failure to note that the pre-war owners, Berthold and Martha Nothmann, were forced to flee Germany as Jews in 1939."



  • The Black Marble Clock1869–1871
  • The Hanged Man's House1873
  • A Modern Olympia1873–74Musée d'Orsay, Paris
  • Bend in the Road Through the Forest1873–1875Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • Mont Sainte-Victoire1882–1885Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • L'Estaque1883–1885
  • Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque1883
  • The Bay of Marseilles, view from L'Estaque1885
  • Jas de Bouffan1885–1887Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Bather1885–1887Museum of Modern Art
  • The Neighborhood of Jas de Bouffan1885-1887Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection
  • Mardi Gras Pierrot et Arlequin1888Pushkin Museum, Moscow
  • Boy in a Red Waistcoat1888–1890National Gallery of Art
  • Madame Cézanne in the Greenhouse1890–1892Musée de l'Orangerie
  • The House with the Cracked Walls1892–1894Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Maison Maria on the way to the Château Noir1895Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
  • Lac d'Annecy1896Courtauld Institute of Art, London
  • Château Noir1900–1904National Gallery of Art, Washington, US
  • Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir1904–05Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan
  • The Bathers1898–1905National Gallery, London

Still life paintings

  • Still Life with an Open Drawer1867–1869 Musée d'Orsay
  • The Basket of Apples1890–1894Art Institute of Chicago
  • Still Life, Drapery, Pitcher, and Fruit Bowl1893–1894Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
  • Still Life with Cherub1895Courtauld Institute of Art, London


  • Boy with Red Vest1890
  • Self-portrait1895
  • Three Pears, ca. 1888–1890, Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
  • Pine Tree in Front of the Caves above Château Noir, ca. 1900, Princeton University Art Museum
  • Mill at the River1900–1906
  • Study of a Skull, 1902–1904, Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
  • Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906, Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
  • River with the Bridge of the Three Sources1906Cincinnati Art Museum

Portraits and self-portraits

  • Portrait of Uncle Dominique1865–1867Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Portrait of Achille Empéraire1868Musée d'Orsay
  • Paul Alexis reading to Émile Zola1869–70São Paulo Museum of Art
  • Self-portrait1875Musée d'Orsay
  • Portrait of Victor Chocquet1876–77
  • Self-portrait1880-81National Gallery, London
  • Self-portrait1879–1882Kunstmuseum Bern
  • Portrait of Madame Cézanne1885–1886Berggruen Museum, Berlin, Germany
  • Madame Cézanne1885–1887Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • Portrait of Paul Cézanne's SonPastel1888–1890The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • Madame Cézanne in a Red Dressc. 1890-1894São Paulo Museum of Art
  • Portrait of Gustave Geffroy1895Musée d'Orsay
  • Man with a Pipe1892–1896Courtauld Institute of Art
  • Self-portrait with Beret1898–1900Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • Woman with a Coffeepot Oil on canvasc. 1895Musée d'Orsay.
  • Portrait of Ambroise VollardOil on canvas1899Petit Palais, Paris

More facts

Gender: Male
Best Known For: Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885–1906)
Apothéose de Delacroix (1890–1894)
Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier (1893–94)
The Card Players (1890–1895)
The Bathers (1898–1905)
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Religion: Catholicism
Number of spouses: 1
First Marriage To: Hortense
Father’s Name: Louis Auguste Cézanne
Father’s Occupation: Co-founder of a banking firm
Mother’s Name: Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert
Citizen Of: France
Awards: Cézanne medal
Museums: Cézanne's Studio in Aix en Provence

Cezanne et Moi (2016)

Paul Cézanne
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