In the fall of 1894, the American painter Mary Cassatt attended a dinner in the countryside outside Paris with a group of artists, among them the notoriously bohemian Paul Cézanne. “His manners at first startled me,” she wrote to a friend. “He scrapes his soup plate, then lifts it and pours the remaining drops in the spoon; he even takes his chop in his fingers and pulls the meat from the bone. . . . Yet in spite of the total disregard of the dictionary of manners, he shows a politeness towards us which no other man here would have shown.”
As Cassatt observed, there was something surprising, even contradictory, about Cézanne. He spouted profanities yet could recite long passages of Virgil and Ovid in Latin. He scorned priests but went faithfully to Mass. He hated the official Paris Salon but kept submitting his work to its judges. He haunted the Louvre, copying sculptures and paintings into his sketchbooks, yet critics said he couldn’t draw. He was obsessed with tradition and obsessed with overturning it. He felt himself a failure . . . and the best painter of his time.
In this centennial year—Cézanne died October 23, 1906, at age 67—two shows focus on different aspects of the career ofthe gutsy iconoclast who has been called the father of modern art. “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865- 1885,” an exhibition organized by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 16. The show, which goes on to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris (February 28 to May 28), highlights the period of Cézanne’s immersion in Impressionism, when he often painted side by side with artist Camille Pissarro. An exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., “Cézanne in Provence” (January 29 through May 7), features more than 100 paintings the artist executed in and around his hometown of Aixen-Provence in southern France. The exhibition will move to the newly renovated Musée Granet in Aixen-Provence (June 9 through September 17) as a highlight of a national celebration in France officially marking 2006 as the Year of Cézanne. “It was by painting his own particular, familiar landscape,” says the National Gallery’s Philip Conisbee (co-curator of the exhibition with Musée Granet director Denis Coutagne), “that Cézanne changed the way later generations would see the world.”
Paul Cézanne wanted to make paint bleed. The old masters, he told the poet Joachim Gasquet, painted warmblooded flesh and made sap run in their trees, and he would too. He wanted to capture “the green odor” of his Provence fields and “the perfume of marble from Saint-Victoire,” the mountain that was the subject of so many of his paintings. He was bold, scraping and slapping paint onto his still lifes with a palette knife. “I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he boasted.
In the years when his friends Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir were finally gaining acceptance, Cézanne worked furiously and mostly in isolation, ridiculed by critics and mocked by the public, sometimes ripping up his own canvases. He wanted more than the quick impressions of the Impressionists (nature, he wrote to a fellow artist, “is more depth than surface”) and devoted himself to studying the natural world. “It’s awful for me;” he told a young friend, “my eyes stay riveted to the tree trunk, to the clod of earth. It’s painful for me to tear them away. . . . And my eyes, you know, my wife tells me that they jump out of my head.”He could often be found, said one contemporary, “on the outskirts of Paris wandering about the hillsides in jackboots. As no one took the least interest in his pictures, he left them in the fields.”
Yet by the end of his life, Cézanne had been recognized, at least by some critics, as a true revolutionary who overturned the rules of painting and upended conventional theories of color. And his paintings were clearly an inspiration to artists who followed, including Matisse, Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.
He was a rebel from the start. Among his earliest paintings—finished when he was 23—are four huge wall panels of young women representing the four seasons. He painted them in the elegant, academic style of Ingres, so pleasing to bourgeoisie taste. They decorated the salon of the family estate in Aix. The panels were parodies—he even signed one “Ingres”—showing off his skill while disguising his mockery. In the center of the same wall, Cézanne hung a portrait he painted of his father, a hatmaker turned banker. The painting was done with a palette knife—its thick, crude slabs of paint suggesting the handiwork of a mason or plasterer. The technique had been used by Cézanne’s hero Gustave Courbet, a radical painter of the previous generation, but Cézanne wielded the knife more aggressively, with quick, almost violent strokes. Referring to a portrait that Cézanne made of his sister Marie (modeled on portraits by the Spanish artist El Greco that Cézanne was copying at the time), the American artist James McNeill Whistler would later say, “If a 10 year old child had drawn that on his slate, his mother, if she was a good mother, would have whipped him.”
Cézanne’s technique, a style he called couillarde, or ballsy, suited his early subjects—murders, rapes and orgies among them. “The young Cézanne wanted to make people scream,” says French art historian Jean-Claude Lebensztejn. “He attacked on all fronts, drawing, color, technique, proportion, subjects . . . he savagely demolished everything one loves.” To accomplish this, says Lebensztejn, Cézanne drew on tradition, adapting themes from the erotic art of Titian and the disasters of Goya.
Cézanne’s father, Louis-Auguste, tried to set the young man straight. Remember, he said, we die with genius, but we eat with money. The two were frequently at odds. Cézanne briefly studied law, as a step to joining his father’s bank, but it didn’t take. His boyhood friend and Aix schoolmate Émile Zola—Cézanne was once beaten up by school bullies for befriending him—was living in Paris and urged Cézanne to join him there. Cézanne’s father finally agreed, and sent him off with an allowance to study art. The artist would resent this patronage all his life, even though he depended on it. His mother, Elizabeth, supported his desire to be an artist and tried to keep peace in the family by mediating between father and son.
In Paris, Cézanne, then in his early 20s, applied to the École des Beaux Arts, training ground of Salon painters, but he was rejected. “Unfortunately, he paints with excess,” noted a former student of Ingres. Cézanne was soon installed in the Atelier Suisse, a studio long favored by upstarts, including Courbet. Even here, Cézanne stood out. Pissarro, who was intrigued by this “peculiar Provençal” and went to see him at the Atelier Suisse in 1861, recalled later that Cézanne’s life studies “provoked roars of laughter from all the impotents of the school.”