Cézanne, Paul
French, 1839 - 1906

Biography

Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence on January 19, 1839, the first child of a prosperous hatter, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, who later became a banker. Paul, as the only son, had his career path chosen for him by his father, who decided that the young man should become a lawyer and prepare to manage the nascent family fortune. By 1857, however, Cézanne had begun to take classes at the Free Drawing School attached to the Musée d'Aix (now the Musée Granet). Yielding to paternal pressure, he registered at the Aix law school the following year, but he had already settled on a life as an artist.

In 1861 Cézanne abandoned his legal studies and made his first visit to Paris, encouraged by his boyhood friend, the novelist Émile Zola. Paris was the center of the art world, an essential destination for any up-and-coming artist, and Cézanne made repeated trips to the capital over the next dozen years, absorbing much that proved foundational to his subsequent artistic accomplishments. He frequented the Salon, studied the old masters and copied Delacroix at the Louvre, and forged friendships with many important artists, including Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, and Henri Fantin-Latour. But it was Camille Pissarro who became a pivotal, lifelong influence on Cézanne after the two met in the early 1860s at the Académie Suisse in Paris.

By the mid-1860s Cézanne had established himself as a painter, though with minimal official success: he was denied entry into the École des Beaux-Arts and systematically excluded from the Salon exhibitions. This rejection resulted from his comparatively radical painting style, characterized by muscular swaths of paste-like paint applied with the palette knife, a technique that he had inherited from the realist master Gustave Courbet. His rough-hewn manner matched his adoption of a provincial persona, a calculated strategy-also patterned after Courbet-to gain notoriety in the cosmopolitan capital. This first phase of Cézanne's career, heavy with dour portraits and emotionally charged scenes of rape and murder, paralleled anxiety in his personal life: discomfited in the capital, Cézanne shuttled back and forth between Aix and Paris seeking a more definitive artistic voice. In Aix the Jas de Bouffan, a large working farm on the outskirts of the city that had been purchased by Louis-Auguste in 1859 to serve as the family estate, figured as a central locale for the artist's searching experimentation of these early years and beyond.

In 1869 Cézanne met Émilie Hortense Ficquet, the woman who would eventually become his wife (1886) and bear his only child, also named Paul, in 1872. It was at the instigation of Pissarro that Cézanne arrived in Auvers in 1872, along with Hortense and their infant son, and began what is often dubbed his "impressionist" phase. Under the influence of the Barbizon painters Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, and Théodore Rousseau, Cézanne had depicted landscape in his previous work. But it was through his close working relationship with Pissarro that Cézanne developed both his enduring interest in plein-air (outdoor) painting and a manner similar to that of the impressionists. Cézanne now placed more emphasis on the close observation of nature and on the rendering of light and atmospheric effects, producing works with a lighter palette and freer brushwork that he exhibited in Paris at the impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1877. It was also during the 1870s, and up to 1885, that Cézanne began to paint in L'Estaque, a site that has rightly been seen as engendering Cézanne's maturation as an artist. It was there, during the mid-1880s, that he painted his great views of the Gulf of Marseille, though he had more prosaic reasons for making this seaside village his base when returning to Provence: L'Estaque had enabled him to avoid the draft (1870-1871), and continued to function as a refuge from paternal interference.

From the mid-1880s until Cézanne's first solo exhibition, organized in Paris in 1895 by his dealer Ambroise Vollard, the artist's personal life and artistic production underwent considerable change. In April 1886 Zola published The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre), a novel whose unflattering portrayal of a failed artist, based on Cézanne himself, precipitated the end of their longstanding friendship. Later that same month Cézanne married Hortense Ficquet, and in October his father died. Around 1890 Cézanne began to suffer from diabetes. Meanwhile, he had by this time entered into his full artistic maturity, adopting a characteristic style in which paint was applied in regular, hatched strokes-his so-called "constructive stroke." For Cézanne this way of working grew out of his intent to produce paintings that captured solid form rather than the fugitive effects rendered by the impressionists. He depicted the gamut of subjects in all media: landscapes around Pontoise and especially Provence, notably his first images of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, as well as still-lifes, portraits, and self-portraits. Among his most iconic works are his paintings of cardplayers, executed in the early 1890s, and of the Bibémus quarry and Château Noir, dated to the mid-1890s. Cézanne had also begun to garner critical attention during this period from the likes of Paul Alexis (1886-1887), Joris-Karl Huysmans (1888), Émile Bernard (1891), George Lecomte (1892), and others.

Among the significant events marking Cézanne's last decade was the death of his mother in 1897, which led to the sale of the Jas de Bouffan in 1899. While robbed of one site, Cézanne created another in 1902 when he had a studio built in the outlying hills of Les Lauves. It is from near his studio that Cézanne began his systematic portrayals of what is recognized today as his signature motif: Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the dominant landform due east of Aix. It is these paintings, arguably more than any other, that display what was perhaps Cézanne's signal aesthetic tenet: the structuring power of color. His last great achievement was his serial paintings of bathers, a theme he treated throughout his life, culminating in three oversize canvases executed at this time. The latter recast both longstanding notions regarding the nude and the relation of figure to landscape.

Cézanne died at 7:00 a.m. on October 23, 1906, at his home, 23 rue Boulegon in Aix.

(Biography was written by Benedict Leca, Mellon Curatorial Fellow, department of European and French paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington.)