Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)

Depicting reality

Paul Cézanne was born 180 years ago, on January 19, 1839. He was born in the town of Aix-en-Provence as the child of a wealthy banker, in a wealthy civil family. Cézanne was an excellent student. Attending the lectures of College Bourbon, he met Émile Zola who he became inseparable good friends with. What they had in common, was primarily their love of literature and Balzac’s novels, but music also played an important role in their relationship, as they both played in the urban band: Cézanne played the horn and Zola the clarinet. This strong friendship long influenced both of their work.

Cézanne was attracted to painting from early on. From 1857, Cézanne took classes in a drawing school and furnished his first studio in the Jas de Bouffan villa, bought by his father. Then, to encourage Zola, he went to Paris and studied painting in 1861. He took part in the art training of Académie Suisse, but he returned home a few months later, as his attempt seemed to have failed. Then, at his father’s instructions, he studied law at the University of Aix, however, the dryasdust world of law was always far from him.

Nevertheless, for his father’s sake he started a legal profession, but soon after, he gave up his job and moved to the capital again. He decided to become a painter and tried to persuade his family about this. His new attempt in the field of painting was successful.

Cézanne spent hours in the Louvre, where he was drinking in the works of the great masters and gained inspiration from sculpture. He worked in the studio of Académie Suisse where he made close friendship with the Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley, the later great impressionists. Unfortunately, however, he failed to gain access to École des beaux-arts, as he was turned down on the grounds of his temperament. Although Paul Cézanne belonged to the impressionists, he did not fully share their views. In fact, he wanted to combine the classic tradition with his contemporary realism. Illustrating with tiny brush strokes and sweeping light effects was not a clear method for him.


“But I wanted to make out of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums.”
– he said, and his work was also driven by this thought.

The Abduction (c. 1867), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

He presented the tangle of styles evoking from impressionism with individual ideas and his own vision. Cézanne did not only want to illustrate things he saw in nature but also represent them. His painting displayed geometric precision and definite forms. Knowing all of the above, Paul Cézanne is considered a post-impressionist painter. He was just as complicated man as artist. His art had a huge impact on several different art trends. Fauvism, cubism, and even some abstract painters considered him to be their forerunner. Cézanne’s early work was greatly influenced by the paintings of Eugéne Delacroix and Gustave Gurbet. Later, from the 1870s onwards, impressionist contemporaries influenced his art. His colours became lighter and more vivid, but he was able to express his unique vision independently from these in his paintings. Such paintings were of the landscapes of Auvers and Provence. These paintings are a combination of warm colours and cold shadows with the light of the impressionist.

After the initial attempts, Cézanne settled in one of Marseille’s harbours and later moved to the village of Gardanne, next to his hometown. He began painting his Montagne Sainte-Victoire series there, which includes nearly eighty paintings.

Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887), Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK

Following his father’s death, he had a serious inheritance. The significant wealth he inherited provided him with plenty of opportunities for free artistic creation. At last he could marry her former model, Hortense, who had earlier given birth to his son. Cézanne kept his relationship with her in secret from his father all the time. His father nevertheless became aware of the relationship and threatened the painter that if he did not end his relationship with the woman, he would withdraw the monthly annuity from him and deny his inheritance. Cézanne could only marry Hortense in 1886, when his father died. After their wedding, they could finally move together, but as they lived together, they could not bear each other anymore. Cézanne moved separately, and in his subsequent pictures, he portrayed his wife as a selfish woman without love. He drafted a will excluding his wife from it leaving everything to his son.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (1877), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US

Cézanne achieved his artistic fulfilment in the second half of the 1880s. The most successful paintings of Cézanne, known as the “Hermit from Aix”, were all made at that time: Still Life with Cherries and Peaches, Hurricane Millennium, Card-Players series and the Large Bathers-series. His first solo exhibition was organized in 1895 by an art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, after purchasing nearly 200 of his paintings. Although he has won the appreciation of the art world, the public was still not enthusiastic about his paintings.

The Card Players (c. 1892-95), Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK

After losing his mother, his relationship with his friends deteriorated and he completely separated himself from the outside world. However, his reputation and legend became more and more prominent as it was impossible to meet him. In 1901, he built his big studio on the edge of Aix. The Autumn Salon in 1904 already dedicated a whole room to his works.

Unfortunately, Cézanne couldn’t enjoy his success for a long time. In 1906, when he was working outdoors, a big storm broke out. Cézanne stayed in the rain for a long time. He got cold, got pneumonia and died at the age of 68 on October 22, 1906.

His paintings today are sold for a fortune on the art market. A record sum of $ 250 million was paid in 2012 – in course of a private bid – by the Qatari royal family for his Card Players painting to the successors of George Embiricos’ late Greek ship magnet (of course, some people think it was even more). In any case, this picture has become one of the most expensive paintings in the world. Card Players are a series of five different sized paintings and only this one is in private hands. The other four pieces are owned and preserved by renowned museums such as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Barnes Foundation Museum in Pennsylvania.