One of the most influential artists in the history of 20th century painting, Paul Cézanne inspired generations of modern artists.
Generally categorised as a Post-Impressionist, his unique method of building form with colour, and his analytical approach to nature influenced the art of Cubists, Fauvists, and successive generations of avant-garde artists.
Cézanne sought to introduce greater structure into what he saw as the unsystematic practice of Impressionism. In his paintings objects appear more solid and tangible than in the works of Impressionist artists.
However, despite this, Cézanne often destabilised the integrity of form through subtle distortions and seeming inaccuracies in his many still-life paintings. Objects don’t rest comfortably on their bases, vases seen from the front have rims seen from above, and the horizontal edges of tables sometimes don’t seem to not match up. It is almost as if Cézanne was dismantling the very solidity he meant to reintroduce to the depiction of objects.
Beginning to paint in 1860 in his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence and subsequently studying in Paris, Cézanne’s early pictures of romantic and classical themes are imbued with dark colours and executed with an expressive brushwork in the tradition of Romantic artists such as Eugène Delacroix. His dramatic tonal contrasts and thick layers of pigment (often applied with a palette knife) exemplify the vigour in which Cézanne painted during the 1860s, which is especially apparent in the portrait series of his Uncle Dominique Aubert, variously costumed as a lawyer, an artist, and a monk. (This kind of costume piece is reminiscent of Édouard Manet’s Spanish paintings of the 1860s.)
In his still-life paintings from the mid-1870s Cézanne abandoned this approach and began to look at the technical problems of form and colour by experimenting with subtly gradated tonal variations, or “constructive brushstrokes,” to create dimension in his objects. Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples is an example of Cézanne’s development into a refined system of colour scales placed next to one another. The light of Impressionism resonates in this work, but signs of a revised palette are especially apparent in his muted tones.
From about the same time, Cézanne ignored the classical laws of perspective and allowed each object to be independent within the space of a picture, for example in such still-lifes as Dish of Apples and in his landscapes. The relationship of one object to another took precedence over traditional single-point perspective.
In single point perspective, things appear to get smaller as they get further away, converging towards a single ‘vanishing point‘ on the horizon line. It is a way of drawing objects so that they appear three-dimensional and realistic – see the section on art terms in my e-course.
From 1882, he painted a number of landscape pictures of his native Aix and of L’Estaque, a small fishing village near Marseille, in which he continued to concentrate on the pictorial problems of creating depth. He used an organised system of layers to construct horizontal planes, which creates dimension and draws the viewer into the landscape. This technique is apparent in Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley and The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque. In Gardanne, he painted the landscape with intense geometric rhythms, which is most pronounced in the houses. (This picture anticipates the Cubism of Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), especially Braque’s impressions of L’Estaque of about 1908.)
In 1890, Cézanne began a series of five pictures of Provençal peasants playing cards. Widely celebrated as among the finest figure compositions completed by the artist, The Card Players demonstrates his system of colour gradations to build form and create a three-dimensional quality in the figures.
Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, a mature work from the early 1890s, reveals Cézanne’s mastery of this style of building forms completely from colour and creating scenes with distorted perspective. The objects in this painting, such as the fruit and tablecloth, are painted without use of light or shadow using extremely subtle changes in colour.
In 1895, the dealer Ambroise Vollard held Cézanne’s first solo exhibition at his gallery in Paris. Although the exhibition met with some scepticism, Cézanne’s reputation as a great artist grew quickly, and he was discussed and promoted by a small circle of enthusiasts, including the art historian and critic Bernard Berenson American painter Mary Cassatt. Posthumous exhibitions at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and the Salon d’Automne in 1907 in Paris established Cézanne’s artistic legacy (see module on Cubism).
Cézanne was interested in the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials – he wanted to “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” (for example, a tree trunk could be conceived of as a cylinder, an apple or orange a sphere).
Additionally, Cézanne’s desire to capture the truth of perception led him to explore how our vision, where two separate images from our two eyes are successfully combined into one image in the brain, works graphically, rendering slightly different, yet simultaneous visual perceptions of the same phenomena. This provides us with an aesthetic experience of depth which was different from those of earlier, classical ideals of perspective, and in particular single-point perspective.
This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.
This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris, key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.
If you’d like to see some of the Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery