The man who changed the landscape of art

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His friend Zola was one of the few to champion him. Zola had not forgotten the incident that had sealed their friendship; the day after Cézanne had been attacked for defending him, Zola had brought Cézanne a basket of apples. Late in life, Cézanne tied this incident to his still lifes, telling his friend Gasquet, “Ah, Cézanne’s apples, they go far back.”Now Zola, who moonlighted as an art critic, defended Cézanne’s paintings —even if he didn’t always understand them. (Zola and Cézanne would, in fact, become estranged in their later years after Zola published a novel that many felt portrayed Cézanne as a failed genius.)

Year after year Cézanne presented his work to the official Salon, “carrying his canvases,” one critic noted, “on his back like Jesus his cross.” And year after year he was rejected. In 1865 he and Pissarro, nine years his elder, began to paint together out-of-doors in villages outside Paris. The collaboration made both men more daring. From Pissarro, Cézanne picked up a sense of discipline and a habit of unremitting daily practice that would mark the rest of his life. He also began incorporating brighter colors and explored new ways of applying paint, using both brushes and palette knives. One day, a villager who watched the two artists reported: “Monsieur Pissarro, when he painted, dabbed, and Monsieur Cézanne smeared.”

But in other ways the two men were similar. “They both shared in common their humongous needs, their egos,” says the Museum of Modern Art’s Joachim Pissarro, the painter’s great-grandson and curator of the “Cézanne & Pissarro” exhibition. “They needed to be fed, like monsters, these bulks of tradition that they gulped down and re-digested in their own ways.”

In March 1865, Cézanne wrote a note to Pissarro about the work he and another young painter were submitting to the Salon: “On Saturday we are going to the barrack of the Champs-Elysees to bring our canvases, which will make the Institute blush with rage and despair.” But it was Édouard Manet who made the crowds blush that year. Salon officials accepted his painting of a naked courtesan, Olympia, an adaptation of a Titian Venus but painted without the conventional refinement. (Nearly a decade later, in 1874, Cézanne, who was tired of hearing Manet’s canvas praised, would paint a retort to Manet he titled A Modern Olympia.He wanted, wrote Cézanne biographer John Rewald, “to create an Olympia more female, more attractive and more desirable than the proud courtesan of Manet.” But when Cézanne’s version was displayed in Paris, critics had a field day. Cézanne, wrote one, “can only be a bit of a madman, afflicted while painting with delirium tremens.” Even Pissarro referred to it as “a five-footed sheep.”)

Though Cézanne continued to paint with Pissarro, it was Manet he considered the leading modern painter—and the man to beat. One evening in the early 1870s, according to Claude Monet, Cézanne made the rounds at the Café Goerbois in Paris shaking everyone’s hand. But when he came to Manet he tipped his hat and said, “I won’t offer you my hand, Monsieur Manet. I haven’t washed in eight days.” It was a gesture both of respect and insolence, says Jean-Claude Lebensztejn: “Manet haunted Cézanne.”

Cézanne was nothing if not a loner. Friends, admirers, other artists were suspect: “They want to get their hooks into me,” he complained. “The meanness of people is such,” he wrote in one of his last letters to his son, “that I should never be able to get away from it—it is theft, complacency, infatuation, violation, the seizing of your work.” He worried that other artists would steal his secrets—especially his ideas about color—and was convinced that Paul Gauguin had done just that. He disliked being touched (even his son would ask permission before taking his arm), and he was fearful of women. “Women models frighten me,” he once said, “you’ve got to be on the defensive all the time.” On a rare occasion when he hired one, he panicked when she began to undress and pushed her, half naked, out the door of his Paris studio. When, around 1869, he met and fell in love with Hortense Fiquet, a 19-year-old model 11 years his junior, he took great pains to hide her from his father (who still held the purse strings). They lived apart as much as together during their 37-year relationship, even after their son, Paul Jr., was born in 1872. And though Fiquet, a tall and handsome brunette whom he finally married in 1886 (a few months before his father died), apparently had no interest in his paintings, she put up with his quirks, didn’t interfere with his work and posed for him for hours on end. She stares out from the many portraits he made of her looking bored or pained. “Be an apple!” Cézanne would tell his sitters. Her patience helped make him a master of the modern portrait.

When the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who said that Cézanne’s paintings were one of the principal influences on his poetry, saw the portrait of Fiquet known as Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, painted circa 1877, when Cézanne was about 38, he wrote: “It is the first and ultimate red armchair ever painted. . . . The interior of the picture vibrates, rises, falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part.”

Cézanne was constantly seeking new ways of handling form and perspective. And in many of his canvases he succeeded in creating a new sense of space. Standing in front of Landscape, Auvers-sur-Oise (1874) at the Museum of Modern Art show, Joachim Pissarro said: “In this landscape, try to figure out where you are sitting. Are you sitting on the edge of the wall? Are you falling off the side of the path? It’s not so dramatic that it gives you a sense of vertigo, but still, it’s completely incomprehensible, it’s a sense of being above the void! This is where Cézanne is totally a key to Modernism.”

Cézanne’s growing mastery did not ease his brooding sense of failure. On his first trip to Paris, in 1861, he had ripped up an unfinished portrait of Émile Zola.Two decades later, it was Madame Zola’s turn. As she posed for him in her garden, Cézanne suddenly poked holes in the canvas, broke his brushes and stalked off. Renoir recalled once retrieving a scrap of paper outside Cézanne’s studio in Aix—“a most exquisite watercolor [he] had discarded after spending twenty sessions on it.”

“My hair is longer than my talent,” Cézanne complained in his 20s. At 50, he wrote that “the many studies to which I have dedicated myself have given me only negative results.” And in 1905, a year before he died, he lamented, “My age and my health will never allow me to realize the artistic dream I have pursued throughout my entire life.”


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