The man who changed the landscape of art

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Cézanne’s Impressionist friends took a different view. “How does he do it?” Renoir marveled. “He can’t put two touches of paint on a canvas without success.” On another occasion Renoir declared, “I don’t think you can find any artist who compares with Cézanne in the whole history of painting.” Pissarro said, “If you want to learn to paint, look at Cézanne.” But Cézanne, it seems, couldn’t take a compliment. Monet wrote about an incident at a dinner with a group of artists at his home in Giverny. When Monet started to tell Cézanne of his friends’ love and admiration, Cézanne interrupted. “You, too, are making fun of me!” he protested, grabbing his coat and rushing out the door.

It was the impossibility of the task Cézanne had set for himself that accounted for his sense of failure. He called himself “a slave to nature,” but he knew that he could never completely capture the natural landscape on canvas. “Art is harmony parallel to nature,” he once said.

As he moved beyond Impressionism, Cézanne began investigating new ways to stimulate the eye, painting with touches and patches of color in carefully calculated juxtaposition to one another. He was looking for a new visual logic, as if to say that art lies, as he put it, “in what our eyes think.” (Kathryn Tuma, assistant professor of modern art at Johns Hopkins University, says that looking at The Red Rock, a c. 1895 Cézanne landscape, in natural light at the Orangerie in Paris several years ago, she saw “dynamic, flickering vibrations of color appear as if floating in front of the surface of the work”—an effect she likens to Rilke’s description of seeing vibrations in Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair.)

Cézanne, according to one account, “would sit motionless in the landscape, like a lizard in the sun, patiently waiting and watching the shifting scene for the appearance of what he wanted to catch in paint.” Indeed, he once told a friend: “I would rather smash my canvas than invent or imagine a detail. I want to know.”

Painting as a search for knowledge is something that would engage many artists of the next generation—and Cézanne’s art may be easier to grasp in retrospect, through their eyes. Mondrian, who couldn’t stop reworking his later canvases, explained, “I don’t want pictures. I just want to find things out.” And Picasso remarked, “One doesn’t make a painting, one makes studies, one never ends getting near.” James Lord, the biographer of Alberto Giacometti, says the artist often called his sculptures failures. “But that was only because he wanted to do the impossible,” Lord notes. “He wanted to make the impossible possible, and nobody can do that.” The same was true of Cézanne.

During the last decade or so of his life, Cézanne lived mainly in his hometown of Aix. There he painted his monumental bathers, his astonishing apples, his moving portraits, his Provençal scenes and, above all, his beloved mountain. “See this Sainte-Victoire,” he told a friend, “what lift, what imperious thirst for the sun, and what melancholy in the evening when all her weight falls back. . . . Her bluish shadows are part of the air’s ambient breathing.”

In his black frock coat, he looked like a banker as he painted. He was so reclusive that some in the art world thought he had died. For a time, his work could be found only in the shop of an eccentric Paris art dealer, Père Tanguy, who had traded Cézanne art supplies for paintings. When Tanguy died, however, a more ambitious dealer, Ambroise Vollard, took possession of the paintings and tracked down the artist in Aix. He proposed a show, and in 1895 Cézanne, then 56, at last astonished Paris with his first one-man show, an exhibition of some 150 paintings, including a number of his still lifes of apples. The artist, wrote one critic, is “destined for the Louvre.” But Cézanne stayed away, leaving the business end of dealing with Vollard to his 23-year-old son, who had remained in Paris.

After Cézanne’s mother died, in 1897, the artist and his two sisters sold the family estate, and he moved to an apartment on the street where his father’s bank had been. Vollard was selling his work, even raising the prices, and in 1899 he came to Aix and bought everything in the artist’s studio.

In 1901, Cézanne oversaw the construction of Les Lauves, a studio on a hill overlooking the town, close to his favorite view of Sainte-Victoire. By then, his fame had spread and young artists, including Emile Bernard, came to learn from him. But his time was running out. “Someone else will accomplish what I have not been able to do,” he said. “I am probably only the primitive of a new art.”

Cézanne once spoke of what he called Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt’s “sublime compromise”—the painters’ ability to express profound emotion in a very personal way yet with a realism faithful to nature. In the end, Cézanne too achieved this compromise, but in a radically new fashion. “In the late portraits of Cézanne’s gardener Vallier,” says Philip Conisbee, “the encrusted surface of the old man, his gnarled hands, the ravaged face with its shadowed eyes, recall the late portraits of Rembrandt. A comparable feeling of tragedy, of impending death, is powerfully present. At the same time, the views he painted from the terrace of Les Lauves are radiant. In The Garden of Les Lauves, Cézanne’s deep feeling for nature is translated into a series of color patches so abstract that, in hindsight, they seem to anticipate the abstract art of a far later era.”


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