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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

One of the most influential artists in the history of modern painting, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) has inspired generations of artists. Generally categorized as a Post-Impressionist, his unique method of building form with color and his analytical approach to nature influenced the art of Cubists, Fauves, and successive generations of avant-garde artists. 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 colors and executed with an expressive brushwork in the tradition of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). Dramatic tonal contrasts and thick layers of pigment (often applied with a palette knife) exemplify the vigor with which Cézanne painted during the 1860s, especially apparent in the portrait series of his uncle Dominique Aubert, variously costumed as a lawyer, an artist, and a monk (53.140.1; 1993.400.1). This kind of costume piece is reminiscent of Édouard Manet’s Spanish paintings of the 1860s.

While the three works that Cézanne exhibited in 1874 at the first Impressionist exhibition were not fully in line with the Impressionist technique of quickly placing appliqués of pigment on the canvas, he did eventually abandon his relatively dark palette in exchange for brilliant tones and began painting out of doors, encouraged by the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). His Bathers (1976.201.12) of 1874–75 demonstrates a developed style and tonal scale in one of his first paintings of this theme, which recurs in his oeuvre. The landscape of Bathers has the brilliance of plein-air painting, while the figures, drawn from the artist’s imagination (Cézanne rarely painted nudes from life), reconcile themselves within this setting. The complex process of drawing inspiration from these two sources, nature and memory, would occupy Cézanne in his later work. The Fisherman (Fantastic Scene) (2001.473), of about 1875, shares the same bright tones as Bathers, while its subject recalls the themes of fantasy familiar from the 1860s; it too could be the product of two polar sources.

In his still-life paintings from the mid-1870s, Cézanne abandoned his thickly encrusted surfaces and began to address technical problems of form and color by experimenting with subtly gradated tonal variations, or “constructive brushstrokes,” to create dimension in his objects. Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples of about 1877 (29.100.66) shows Cézanne’s rejection of the intense contrasts of light and shadow of his earlier years in exchange for a refined system of color 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. Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (51.112.1), a mature work from about 1890, reveals Cézanne’s artistic evolution and mastery of this style of building forms completely from color and creating scenes with distorted perspectival space. The objects in this painting, such as the fruit and tablecloth, are rendered without use of light or shadow, but through extremely subtle gradations of color. In such still lifes as Dish of Apples (1997.60.1) of about 1876–77, as in his landscapes, Cézanne ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective.

From 1882, Cézanne executed a substantial number of landscape pictures of his native Aix and of L’Estaque, a small fishing village near Marseille, in which he continues to concentrate on pictorial problems of creating depth. Here Cézanne used an organized system of layers to construct a series of horizontal planes, which build dimension and draw the viewer into the landscape. This technique is apparent in Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (29.100.64) and The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque (29.100.67). In Gardanne (57.181), he painted the landscape with intense volumetric patterns of geometric rhythms 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 (61.101.1) demonstrates his system of color gradations to build form and create a three-dimensional quality in the figures. Continuing on this theme of the rural laborer, Seated Peasant (1997.60.2) celebrates the dignity of working-class citizens of Third Republic France (1870–1940).

In 1895, the dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867–1939) held Cézanne’s first one-man exhibition at his gallery in Paris. Although the exhibition met with some skepticism, 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 (1865–1959), American painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), and collectors Henry Osborne Havemeyer (1847–1907) and his wife Louisine Havemeyer (1855–1929). Posthumous exhibitions at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and the Salon d’Automne in 1907 in Paris established Cézanne’s artistic legacy.