The Life and Work of Cezanne


By Ellie Clarke

During the transition from Impressionism to post-Impressionism, there is no doubt that Cezanne was a critical figure. Alex Danchev, who recently delivered an insightful lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, considers the legacy of an artist who was ahead of his time in his new biography, ‘Cezanne: A life.’

Danchev suggested that when Cezanne died in 1906, aged 67, he died ‘unknown and famous.’ This might come as surprise if you knew that among Cezanne’s collectors were Monet, Gaugin, and Renoir. The latter famously said, ‘he’s only to put two dabs of paint on a canvas and already there’s something.’ Cezanne only had his first solo exhibition in 1895, a mere 11 years before his death. Whilst his work was revered by painters and his peers, he received criticism for painting things to make them look skewed and distorted. Indeed, Cezanne famously transformed shapes, manipulated colour, and overthrew the idea of perspective. Maurice de Nee, therefore, could not have made a more significant observation than noticing that Cezanne was a ‘painter by inclination.’

Self portrait, 1875, Musée d’Orsay

In Cezanne’s glorious paintings, we see his preoccupation with the passage of time. As a young admirer of the painter said, ‘the minute of life of the world is going by, and Cezanne painted it as it is.’ Nevertheless, his paintings are invariably timeless. Due to his contemplative approach to painting and as a revolutionary in the development of modern art, Cezanne reinvented the grammar of painting to; ‘make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums.’

Clearly, the man behind the canvas was always a step ahead of his brush. Yet, whilst upon first glance it would appear the artist was guided by his hand, we underestimate the importance of his eyes. If one were to step back in time and watch Cezanne paint, we would be sure to notice the seemingly exaggerated time interval between his brush strokes. It is for this reason that when you look at a Cezanne you simply cannot bear to look at it without absorbing every one of the details which he has included. Cezanne was unquestionably a man of extraordinary reflection and through the combination of pleasure, anxiety, and restlessness in his paintings, it is obvious why Cezanne has, to this day, appealed to philosophers, poets, and writers.

The Basket of Apples, 1890-1894, Art Institute of Chicago

It would be difficult to deny the intellectual nature of Cezanne’s works. Indeed, Cezanne himself was an intellectual. He continued to challenge himself through education during the extent of his life, through translating Virgil in his free time, reciting Baudelaire by heart, and reading Latin and Greek recreationally. The thought and complexity of his paintings are what give them that magnificent quality and make them so difficult for us to fully comprehend.

Danchev’s research into the life and work of Cezanne led him to the conclusion that Cezanne was at the heart of everything else to come. Despite his major artistic influences from Courbet, Delaquire, and Manet, Cezanne rejected the transience of Impressionism and wished to record permanence, setting out to restore a sense of order and structure to painting. His approach was almost like that of Cubism. What he did not know is that, only a few years later, under his influence, Picasso and Braque would evolve the movement. Cezanne’s colossal ambition to change painting and change the world has arguably made him a figure-head in the evolution of modern art. If so, Picasso’s tribute to the artist was the most beautiful yet; ‘It’s not what the artist does that counts, but what he is.’

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One Response to The Life and Work of Cezanne

  1. A Watt says:

    A very thorough whistle stop tour. Might I suggest that you write a critique of a major exhibition that might be on, to entice people to go to it. Anyway, enjoyed the read, and Picasso’s tribute.

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