by Roderick Conway Morris

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MoMA, New York
Still Life with Fruit Dish by Cezanne, 1879-80

The Father of Modern Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 November 2022


Paul Cezanne remained deeply rooted in his native Provence throughout his life and it was the well-spring of all his art. He was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Province, twenty miles north of Marseilles and four hundred miles south of Paris.

His school friend Émile Zola later evoked an idyllic picture of their boyhood excursions into the countryside surrounding the town, writing in 'L'Oeuvre' (The Masterpiece), the most autobiographical of his novels: 'These were escapes from the world, an instinctive absorption into the bosom of kindly nature, an unquestioning love in children for trees, streams, mountains, for that boundless joy of being alone and of being free.'

Curiously enough it was Zola who then won their school's drawing prizes while Cezanne was more engaged by the classics and poetry. However, the latter came to nurture the ambition to become an artist, much to the dismay of his father Louis-Auguste, a self-made man who had bought Aix's only bank. In 1858 Zola departed for Paris and, to please his father, Cezanne enrolled at the local university to study law.

Three years later his father finally relented and allowed Paul (with a small allowance) to go to the capital to pursue his dream. However, while Zola had by the late 1870s established himself as a celebrated and well-paid writer, Cezanne would have to endure nearly three and half decades of incomprehension and often ridicule before his paintings won some measure of critical success and began to sell beyond a small circle of fellow artists and enlightened supporters.

Some 25 years on since the last major British exhibition devoted to the artist, Tate Modern is now the venue for an impressive show of over 80 of his works, carefully selected from collections around the world and containing a score that have never been seen in this country before, including 'The Basket of Apples' (c.1893) from Chicago, 'Mont Sainte-Victoire' (1902-06) from Philadelphia and 'Still Life with Milk Pot, Melon and Sugar Bowl' (1900-06) from a private collection. Highlighting the importance of the artist's Provençal roots, the curators have decided to drop the 'e' acute in his name on the grounds that this was added by others while he was working in Paris, but he himself never adopted it either in his correspondence nor when signing his paintings and, indeed, his direct descendants to this day spell the name without the accent.

On his arrival in Paris Cezanne immersed himself in the city's great museums - especially the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg - and sketched the nude at the informal Atelier Suisse, which was also frequented by Manet and Pissarro. The painters he most admired were Rubens, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Ribera, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto and Delacroix. Uniquely among the avant-garde artists of his era, Cezanne was a dedicated copyist throughout his career, making nearly 400 copies of earlier masters, a third of them dating from after 1890. As he once remarked: 'In my opinion, one does not replace the past, one only adds a new link.'

His earliest works employed a dark palette and thick impastos in the style of the Spanish masters. His subject matter was sometimes luridly erotic and violent, depicting orgiastic scenes and murders. He seems to have had little natural facility in painting and the skills he acquired were hard won. But while his mastery of figure painting was painfully slow, his hidden gifts began to manifest themselves in his remarkable portraits, still lifes and landscapes.

In 1869 he began to live with Hortense Fiquet, a 19-year-old model from Jura, a relationship he long kept secret (fearful that his father would cut off his allowance). With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Cezanne fled with her to l'Estaque on the Mediterranean coast south of Aix to avoid conscription. The majestic sweep and blue waters of the bay there would, during the following decade and a half, be the subject of some of his most memorable landscapes.

Hortense gave birth to a son, also named Paul, in 1872. She seems to have had shockingly little regard for her husband's art and, after his death, was quoted as saying: 'Cézanne didn't know what he was doing.'

The Impressionists were among the first to appreciate Cezanne's works. He sometimes painted alongside them and struck up particularly warm friendships with Pissarro, Monet and Renoir. Cezanne participated in the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1874 - after which he made a rare sale with 'The House of the Hanged Man' - and again at the Third Exhibition in 1877. But artistically speaking he always remained semi-detached from the movement. And, in distinguishing himself from it, Cezanne later said: 'I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums.'

Nonetheless, while almost all the critics and the wider public remained baffled by the Provençal artist's works, the Third Impressionist Exhibition was the occasion for an unusual display of understanding of what Cezanne was striving to achieve. As Georges Rivière wrote: 'M. Cézanne is a painter, and a great painter. His beautiful still lifes, so exact in the relationship of tones, have a solemn quality of truth. In all his paintings the artist produces emotion because he himself experiences in the face of nature a violent emotion that his craftsmanship transmits to the canvas.'

Cezanne himself described his aim to be 'to render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before us.' He viewed painting as a means not of recording or capturing an impression of nature but as a kind of autonomous equivalent, or as he once put it: 'Art is a harmony which runs parallel with nature.' To achieve this ambition, he elaborated a distinctive mode of painting, creating blocks of vertical, horizontal and diagonal brushstrokes into mosaic-like patterns that melded foregrounds and backgrounds into single images that at once reflected nature but asserted their independence from it as expressions of the artist's response to it. As he explained in the year of his death in 1906: 'I believe in the logical development of what we see and feel through the study of nature. Techniques are merely the means of making the public feel what we ourselves feel.'

In 1886 Zola published his novel 'L'Oeuvre', whose chief protagonist, the artist Claude Lantier, was clearly based primarily on Cezanne. Lantier is depicted as a tragic failure who eventually commits suicide. But even as early as the1860s, when Cezanne followed him to Paris, the writer was observing: 'Paul may have the genius of a great painter, but he'll never have the genius to become one. The slightest obstacle makes him despair.' The Impressionists denounced the novel as an attack directed at them, but Cezanne maintained a dignified silence.

At the end of the same year, Cezanne's father Louis-Auguste died, leaving the artist well-off and financially independent for the first time. Cezanne had at last married Hortense in the spring of 1886, but while she and their son Paul continued to spend much of their time in Paris, he remained increasingly in Provence. Henceforth, he became ever more fascinated with Mont Sainte-Victoire, the dominant feature of the landscape near Aix, which became a symbol of his homeland, almost a sacred mountain for him. He painted more than thirty oils of it and scores of watercolours, the later oils moving almost towards abstraction. As D.H. Lawrence acutely observed in 1929: 'Sometimes Cézanne builds up a landscape essentially out of omissions.'

During this period he also returned to a genre that had engaged him intermittently since the mid-1870s: male and female bathers in pastoral settings. They recalled his youthful bathing excursions near Aix but were above all consciously in the tradition of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. At the same time, these canvases were uncompromisingly in his own style and were later to exert a powerful influence, especially on Matisse and Picasso (both of whom owned Cezanne paintings of bathers).

In 1895 Ambroise Vollard chose Cezanne for his first exhibition at his new Paris gallery in rue Lafitte. Vollard had some difficulty in even tracking the artist down but eventually persuaded him to send 150 works to this his first ever solo show. The critical response was mixed, but it was warmly received by the likes of Degas, Monet and Renoir and the Provençal artist began finally to win wider recognition.

At the end of his life Cezanne lamented to a friend: 'I am dying without any pupils. There is no one to carry on my work.' He need not have worried. His influence was soon being felt and acknowledged by Fauvists, Cubists and Post-impressionists and by painters as varied as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Klee, Gauguin and Kandinsky. And by 1914 Clive Bell was writing that 'the prime characteristic of the new movement is its derivation from Cézanne.'

Cezanne; Tate Modern, 5 October 2022 -12 March 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024