Paul Cézanne: His Life, Work, and Legacy
When learning about modern art, Paul Cézanne is a major name as a prominent and influential Post-Impressionist. Most notably, he’s often praised for bridging two instrumental styles: Impressionism and Cubism.
The Life of Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was born in 1839 in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence. His father was a wealthy banker, and his mother was “vivacious and romantic,” a passion for life which she passed along her passion for life to her son. Interestingly, Cézanne grew up a good friend of Emile Zola, the now-famed novelist.
He studied drawing at times growing up, but when it came time for university, he enrolled in the University of Aix to study law in compliance with his father’s wishes. However, he soon moved to Paris and dedicated himself to art, much to his father’s disapproval.
There, Paul met Impressionists—whose light, airy compositions were starting to attract attention—and was heavily influenced by their work. He aimed to merge their fleeting observation of nature with the heavy permanence of classical works he admired in the Louvre. Reportedly, he wanted to take Impressionist ideas but make his paintings “something more concrete and solid, similar to the art of the museums.”
Although he exhibited with the Impressionists, his work was perceived as more crude than artists such as Monet. In the late 1870s, he spent most of his time in Aix—a move which significantly influenced his work. His sunny surroundings and friendship with painter Camille Pissarro led to a brighter color palette, filled with joyful greens and dazzling blues, marking the beginning of his mature period that we know and love him for.
Throughout the 1880s, he made many still-lifes and portraits in his sculptural manner, departing more and more from Impressionism. In the last few years of his life, he focused on two subjects—the beautiful Mont Sainte-Victoire in Aix and the Bathers series in which nudes exist in a landscape. In his last few years before his death in 1906, young artists such as Pablo Picasso were inspired by Cézanne’s subjective use of color apart from form. It wasn’t until 1904 that Paul Cézanne enjoyed widespread fame as a great artist.
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Major Works of Paul Cézanne
Let’s jump into some of the great masterpieces of Paul Cézanne.
Table, Napkin, and Fruit (A Corner of the Table) (1895–1900)
Let’s start with a still life—a classic subject—but one that Paul Cezanne puts a twist on. After studying Old Master painting at the Louvre, Cézanne formulated his own semi-sculptural approach to still lifes.
Cézanne approaches the shapes of the fruits and the folds of the cloth in a very architectural, dimensional way. Rather than focusing on strict realism, Cézanne chooses to make a dynamic push and pull between all the geometry in the scene. There’s a lovely rhythm between the individual fruits and the fruits and the background. We think of this through the artist’s philosophy—the idea of “constructing” a picture rather than simply “painting” it.
Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898–1905)
Cézanne was uniquely interested in bringing the weight of classical subjects into the modern era. Les Grandes Baigneuses (The Large Bathers) is a quintessential example of this goal.
In this composition, he brings the modern nude into a still-life arrangement under a heavenly arch of trees, bringing back classic monumentality that he felt had lapsed. The figures seem more like statues than anything else. He reinterprets the Western motif of the female nude in a purely structural, abstract way, making for a very radical and monumental masterpiece.
Mont Sainte-Victoire (1905)
This oil on canvas work highlights all the techniques for which we have come to love Paul Cézanne. As mentioned, Mont Sainte-Victoire—an enormous feature of the landscape in Aix—was a favorite subject in his later life. This particular rendition was one of his last paintings of it and remains one of the most famous.
He creates the scene with an abstract vocabulary, with architectural forms of color making up the magnificent Mount Sainte-Victoire. Rocks and trees are suggested by mere slabs of paint rather than specific features. We’ll get into it more when talking about his style, but he treats color and form equally, making for an almost mosaic-like surface of dazzling springtime colors.
The following quote by Cézanne illustrates the beauty of this work: “Shadow is a color as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.”
All about the style of Paul Cézanne
Why were some of the most famous artists of all time—such as Matisse and Picasso, who together recognized Cézanne as “the father of all us”—so enamored with his work? To answer this, let’s explore the innovative style of Paul Cézanne.
An important aspect of Cézanne’s style was his use of optical phenomena. He was fascinated by the simplification of geometry, and he aimed to bring these ideas to the canvas while observing nature. For example, an orange becomes a sphere and a tree trunk becomes a cylinder.
He wanted to move away from the idea of the transient moment, long favored by the Impressionists—instead, Cézanne captured more permanent and heavy pictorial qualities of life around him. You can see this tendency as early as his Paris years, when his work evolved into more solid architectural studies than many of his contemporaries.
Additionally, in Cézanne’s mature work especially, the colors and forms possessed equal pictorial weight, making for a dynamic, solid composition through and through. Although this might sound insignificant, it was a move towards abstraction that paved the way for artists like Picasso to take art in a much more radical direction. Cézanne’s influence can even be seen as late as 1950 with the rise of Abstract Impressionism in the United States.
We want to leave you with a quote by Paul Cézanne that we think is a lovely sentiment for any artist or art lover:
“I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.”
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