Paul Cézanne - Biography of the Most Influential Painter

31 January, 2021
Paul Cézanne, the most influential artist in the history of modern painting, inspired generations of artists. Generally categorized as a Post-Impressionist, his unique method of building forms with color and his analytical approach to nature influenced many art movements. Read on!

French painter Paul Cézanne was one of the greatest of the Post-Impressionists. His impressive works and ideas were incredibly influential in the aesthetic development of many 20th-century artists and art movements, especially Cubism. Sadly, the public discredited and misunderstood his art during most of his life.

His style grew out of Impressionism and challenged the conventional values of painting in the 19th century. This was due to his insistence on personal expression and the painting’s integrity, regardless of the subject matter. Eventually, the public began to adore his groundbreaking works. In fact, he highly influenced Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Cézanne’s early life

Famous painter Paul Cézanne was born on January 19, 1839, in Aix-en-Provence, France. He was born into a well-to-do bourgeois family. Hence, the artist enjoyed  the luxury of attending a good school that helped enhance his skills.

Cézanne received a classical education at the Collège Bourbon in Aix. In 1858, under the direction of his father, a successful banker determined to have his son enter the same profession, he enrolled the law school of the University of Aix-Marseille. Sadly, the young pupil had no taste for law.

After all, he decided to pursue an artistic career at an early age. Thus, after two years, he persuaded his father, with the support of his mother, to let him study painting in Paris. Cézanne later enrolled himself at the Académie Suisse to study drawing and painting. There, he met Emile Zola.

The two instantly became friends, even if Cezanne pursued painting while Zola became a great literary artist. Only after living in Paris for a while and proving his genius, Cezanne’s father was happy for the young artist to follow his true dreams.

Paul Cézanne’s early work

During his formative period, from about 1858 to 1872, Cézanne alternated between living in Paris and visiting his family in Aix. Self-doubt overwhelmed him. Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s artwork particularly interested him, though he wasn’t confident about his own artistic skills.

The early 1860s was a period of great vitality for Parisian literary and artistic activity. The conflict reached its height between the Realist painters, led by Gustave Courbet, and the official Académie Suisse painters.

During his early years as a painter, Cézanne’s style was violent and dark. He painted scenes with harsh extremes of light and shadow, with a looseness and vigor that were remarkable for the era.

His Impressionist years

In the 1860s, Cézanne, whose tastes had shifted away from the academic, became associated with the most advanced painters in Paris like Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. These artists, including Cézanne, were in their 20s and were forming their styles, becoming Impressionists. 

In July 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-German War, Cézanne left Paris for Provence. He took with him Marie-Hortense Fiquet, a young woman who was his mistress at the time, and whom he married years later. They lived in a lovely village on the coast where the painter became highly inspired.

There, he began to paint landscapes, exploring ways to depict nature faithfully and, at the same time, to express the feelings it inspired in him. As a matter of fact, Cézanne began to approach his subjects exactly the way his Impressionist friends did. 

Cézanne’s landscapes from that era had great composition, just as his early style did. However, they were also much more disciplined, and more attentive to the atmospheric, rather than dramatic, quality of light.

In 1872, his beloved partner Marie-Hortense gave birth to a son. Afterward, at the invitation of Camille Pissarro, Cézanne took his family to live at Pontoise. There, he started learning the theories and techniques of Impressionism from Pissarro. Despite his difficult personality, he was the only of his pals patient enough to teach him.

Discovering his own style

People asked Cézanne to be a part of an art exhibition in 1874. Believe it or not, it was the painter’s first time participating in one. Besides, the artworks exhibited there were Impressionist, which later on became an artistic movement in the 19th century. 

This exhibit became the first of eight other shows that were organized from 1874 to 1886. Nevertheless, Cezanne decided to participate only in the first and third Impressionist show, which was in 1877.

“A work of art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t art at all.”

-Paul Cézanne-

Paul Cezanne soon found his own style and refrained from becoming a part of other Impressionist artists during the late 1870s. He also found contentment in working alone in his home in Southern France. The truth is there were many reasons behind his desire to work in isolation.

Not only was his artwork’s personal direction not in place of the masterpieces of other Impressionists, but it also received negative feedback from many people. This was also the reason why he lacked the interest to exhibit his works publicly for about 20 years, right after his Impressionist show.

Camille Pissarro was one of Paul Cezanne’s biggest influences. Besides, after spending time with him in 1872, Cezanne started to work outdoors with a much broader range of colors. Cezanne met Vincent van Gogh around this time and was also highly influenced by his style. 

Consequently, Cezanne’s brush strokes were less dense and more fluid. Compositions from this period clearly reveal that Cezanne’s technique and the subject matter were Impressionistic. Back then, his paintings resembled Renoir’s and Monet’s styles. His masterpieces filled with color and volume had a sense of a unified entity.

His mature style

During this period of isolation (from the late 1870s to the early 1890s), Cézanne developed his mature style. His landscapes from this period, including The Sea at L’Estaque, were the first masterpieces of the mature painter.

These landscapes contain compositions of calm and grand horizontals where the even strokes create a clean, prismatic effect, and an implacable blue sea spreads across the canvases. Like all his mature landscapes, these also have an exciting, radically new quality simultaneously, while showing the flat design and deep space.

Cézanne knew pretty well how to portray depth and solidity. His method was used by Impressionists to indicate form. In his own words, “I seek to render perspective only through color”. 

The painter’s cleverness and eye were able to strip away that which was diffuse and superimposed in the view of a given mass, to analyze its constituent elements. In works such as these, he tried to rediscover a more substantial reality of simple forms behind the glimmering veil of appearances.

As the 19th century ended, Cézanne’s art was exponentially increasing in the skill of composition, depth, and concentrated richness of color. He felt able to create a new vision. From 1890 to 1905, he painted acclaimed masterpieces, one after another. Cézanne was obsessed with his own work when he died in 1906.

Legacy

Though the public only accepted and liked Cézanne’s work in the last decade of his career, his colleagues truly admired his quest to see through appearances to the logic of the underlying structure. His hope that his work may serve as a form of education for other artists was achieved.

In fact, many important painters purchased his work, including Picasso, Gauguin, Bonnard,  Matisse, and more. A retrospective showing of 56 of his works was held in 1907 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Of course, this showing won major acclaim.

For an Impressionist to paint from nature isn’t to paint the subject, but to realize sensations.”

-Paul Cézanne-

His intellectual approach to formal issues laid the foundations for Picasso and other artists’ explorations with Cubism, while his investigations of brushstroke and color influenced Matisse and other Fauve artists in the early 1900s. In time, the public embraced his work. No one in modern art has made stronger demands on aesthetic receptivity than Cézanne. 

He’s now recognized as the most significant precursor of 20th-century formal abstraction in painting, as he developed a purely pictorial language that balanced analysis with emotion and structure with lyricism. Even Picasso was amazed by his genius, naming him “the father of us all”. A brilliant assessment.

  • Venturi, L. (1960) Cuatro pasos hacia el arte moderno: Giorgione, Caravaggio, Manet, Cézanne. Nueva Visión.
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  • Smith, P. (1996) Interpreting Cezanne. London: Tate Publishing.
  • Rewald, J.; Feilchenfeldt, W.; Warman, J. (1996) The paintings of Paul Cézanne: a catalogue raisonné. Musée du Louvre.