National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Paul Cézanne

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How should we look at Cézanne? Pablo Picasso regarded him as a "mother hovering over," Henri Matisse as "father to us all." Inevitably, our understanding of Cézanne's painting is colored by later cubism and abstraction, focusing attention on the formal aspects of his work. His reduction of the visible world into basic, underlying shapes, the faceted brushstrokes that seem to reconstruct nature through purely painterly forms, the fracture and flattening of space—all these can be seen as the beginnings of modern art. Yet Cézanne himself stressed that he painted from nature and according to his sensations, seeking to realize a "harmony parallel to nature."

Cézanne was born in Provence and spent most of his life there. He never tired of painting its sun-baked landscape. Cézanne moved to Paris in the early 1860s and associated with advanced artists such as Edouard Manet and the young impressionists. His own early works, however, were very different from theirs. His pigments were dark and heavy, applied with emphatic brushstrokes or palette knife; his subjects were "difficult," sometimes violent and erotic, deeply personal.

In the early 1870s his style changed. Working alongside Camille Pissarro in the open air, Cézanne turned to landscapes and adopted the impressionists' broken brushwork and brighter colors. He exhibited with them in 1874 and 1877. Beginning in the late 1870s and increasingly through the next decade, Cézanne's handling of paint became more ordered and systematic. Back in Provence, rejected by critics and working in isolation, his style developed independently. His "constructive stroke," as it is often described, results from penetrating analysis. It represents rather than imitates visual effects. Color relationships render the fundamental nature and connectedness of what Cézanne saw and felt. In his late paintings, those made after about 1895, these color harmonies become more sonorous, autumnal, and the paintings more meditative and melancholy.

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