top of page

Paul Cézanne - The Life of A French Artist

Few painters achieve the level of recognition and admiration that Cézanne earned, even if such accolades only came years after his death. His work is characterised as demanding in the pursuit of his stated goal of “realisationdelivering themes common since the Renaissance such as portraits, figures, landscapes, and still lifes.

The Early Work

Paul Cézanne was born out-of-wedlock on January 19, 1839 in Aix-en-Provence to the hat merchant Louis-Auguste Cézanne and Anne-Elisabeth Honorine Aubert.

Quick-tempered, but otherwise reserved and moody, Paul had few friends growing up, but he was unflinching in standing up for those who were weaker. Cézanne first went to law school, but eventually dropped out and went to work at his father's bank, although he remained fascinated by painting. Finally, his father relented and let his son move to Paris, equipped with a monthly allowance of 150 francs.

Once in the capital, Cézanne regularly took classes at the Académie Suisse, one of the many private art schools in Paris, where budding talents could draw nude models for little money. Cézanne's early paintings are characterized by dark themes in an impasto style after Courbet's example (The Murder, 1867-69).

He also created figure paintings in domestic surroundings and still lifes, all part of the artistic discipline that Cézanne sought to acquire through his study of the Dutch and Spanish masters in the Louvre.

The Artists Father, Reading L'Evenement (1866)
Achille Emperaire (1867/68)

Still Life with A Kettle (1867-69)
Three Women (1867)

Still life with Bread and Eggs (1865)

Cézanne and Impressionism

Cézanne began his intensive work on landscape motifs after 1870. He had been living with the artists' model Marie-Hortense Fiquet since 1869, a liaison that Cézanne tried his best to hide from his father. Indeed, it was not until 1872, when Cézanne's son Paul was born, that his father discovered the relationship, largely because Cézanne repeatedly had to ask him for money. It was only in 1886 that Cézanne finally married his long-time companion, mostly at his mother's and sister Marie's urging, but the couple had already become largely estranged by this point.

When Cézanne returned to Paris in 1871, he was still far removed from the stylistic achievements of the emerging Impressionist movement, so he followed the suggestion of his old friend Camille Pissarro that the two should paint together. In late 1872, Cézanne moved with Marie-Hortense and their son Paul to Pontoise, initially in a hotel near Pissarro's apartment.

Pisarro took Cézanne out on painting excursions where he tried to teach his friend the principles Impressionism with the patience of a fatherly friend. Cézanne participated in the first and third Impressionist exhibitions in Paris out of solidarity, but his work was only met with ridicule.

This led Cézanne to flee to Aix, where he sought to recoup new strength in the peace and quiet of his native Provence. At this point, he mostly painted figure paintings, including many scenes of men and women bathing in the wild, reflecting pastoral themes from the Renaissance, with an idyllic view of life in the country as the ideal state of harmony between humankind and nature.

The Five Bathers (1876/77)
The Three Bather (1879-82)

The Large Bathers (1894-1905)

Cézanne's bathers were, however, strictly separated by gender, and, later, the difference begins to blur as his images shifted in favor of highly stylized, androgynous figures. They were initially small, manageable groups of figures captured in various poses. Later, Cézanne expanded these scenes to include many figures where the variety of movement was restricted to a few typical poses of standing, squatting, or lounging.

The figures and the surrounding landscape increasingly began to merge into an overarching harmonious unity.

View of L-Estaque Through The Trees (1878/79)
Madame Cezanne Sewing (1877)
The Road At Pontoise (1875-77)
L'Estaque, View of the Bay of Marseilles (1878/79)

Cézanne in Provence

Although Cézanne kept a studio in Paris until the turn of the century, he was drawn more and more back home to his native Provence, the roots of his art and his source of artistic inspiration. In and around Aix, Cézanne found landscape motifs that inspired him to recreate his painting style again and again. One of his favorite places was the small village of L'Estaque, where he repeatedly stayed between 1870 and 1888 for intensive periods of work. Over time, Cézanne's objects became simplified and he consolidated his image composition.

To escape conflict at home, Cézanne began walking the 17 km to Gardanne every day, a small mountain town in the Haute Provence. The staggering of the houses on the flat hilltop inspired a number of paintings that especially showcase the cubic structure of the houses. From Gardanne, where he briefly moved his family, Cézanne had views of the Montage Sainte-Victoire mountains across the Aix hinterland with which so many legends and myths were associated.

Like other Provençal painters before him, Cézanne was also increasingly attracted by this imposing motif. One of his favorite spots in the 1880s, the Bellevue estate located on a hill west of Aix, offered extensive views over the Arc valley. He painted many landscapes here, mostly overlooking the railway viaduct and the Montage Sainte-Victoire.

Portrait of the Artist's Son (1881/82)
Madame Cezanne (1883-85)
Pierrot and Harlequin (1888)

Still Life with a Chest of Drawers

1883-87, Oil on canvas/Huile sur toile, 73,3 x 92,2cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munchen

The various formal references begin with the triangular composition of the still life, starting from the edge of the table, past the sugar bowl and ginger pot, and then to the right at the folds of the tablecloth with uneven creases that lend the image an organic sense.

The lines of the chest, the tablemedges, the side of the screen, and the pieces on the table create vertical and horizontal lines. Other references are created by the variation of round and elliptical shapes in the fruits and the openings in the bowls on the table and the locks and handles on the chest. The various openings cannot be viewed from a central focal point. Cézanne repeatedly switched up the directions of the perspective in order to allow the references within the image to stand out more clearly.


Seeking the truth of painting

In addition to landscapes and still lifes, Cézanne also painted large figure paintings in Aix, often putting his models in uncomfortable poses for hours. Madame Cézanne frequently had to serve this purpose and there are some pictures of her from this period that show her with a rather strict, absent demeanor.

The estrangement between the couple had reached a point where Cézanne found himself able to paint his as "objectively" as an apple or a tree. The situation was different with his son Paul whom he loved very much. Inspired by the carnival in Aix, Cézanne painted a Mardi Gras scene where two characters from the commedia dell'arte stand on a slightly inclined stage: a harlequin with a cot and probably the artist's son Paul under his arms and pierrot in white who wants to snatch the cot away.

The Card Players (1890-95)

Some farmers at the Jas de Bouffan probably served as models for Cézannes 1893 - 96 series of card players. Starting with a group of five men, Cézanne narrowed in on two men sitting opposite and very focused on their hands they had been dealt. In this final version, all of the details that would have made this a genre picture are eliminated in favor of a stronger expression that has been compared to the "dignity, taciturnity, and weighty solemnity of an ancient monument" (Roger Fry).

Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-95)

In 1897, Cézanne's mother died. Cézanne moved to Rue Boulegon in Aix where a housekeeper, Madame Bremond, took care of him. She, too, was made to model for him, as can be seen in one of Cézanne's most beautiful and important works: Woman with Coffee Pot. The strict composition is emphasized by the vertical spoon in the coffee cup and the cylindrical shape of the coffee pot.

Cézanne simplified and organized the objects in his paintings in order to lend his compositions a monumental severity comparable with the symmetrical structures of early Italian painting.

If no models were available, Cézanne would go back to painting still lifes with fruits and flowers, which he has repeatedly had to replace due to his slow, deliberate process. The carefully arranged objects, vases, and bowls from the studio, often filled with apples and pears, and a few white sheets.

Because for Cézanne, the image was subject to different laws than the normal perceptual space. Each object claims its own space within the image and yet still wants to be closely linked with the other elements in the picture. Cézanne thus did not keep his still lifes with a linear perspective and a fixed vanishing point, but instead used a multi-layered, fractured perspective that gives the objects a subjective sense of space. The resulting simultaneous image thus foreshadows and paves the way for Cubism.


Still Life with Apples and Oranges

c. 1889, Oil on canvas/Huile sur toile, 74 × 93 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The intense shades of purple, yellow, red and green in the oriental carpet and the apples and oranges scattered on the table form a vivid contrast to the white tablecloth, which absorbs the various nuances of these colors.


Late works

Despite the significant lessons that Cézanne learned from his still lifes and landscapes, he still saw the figure paintings that were the focus of his last decade as the ultimate goal of his art. The series of bathers started back in the 1870s and was a repeated motif throughout his life. He used them not only to address the pastoral (the nude in the rural countryside), but also to record his childhood memories of a perfect harmony between humankind and nature.

For Cézanne, these images represented an important artistic theme which he often described with the enigmatic phrase of wanting to "renew Poussin after nature", Cézanne was not attempting to revive neoclassicism, as many of his contemporaries attempted in the 1880s and 90s. For him, the old masters were always a source of edification and training. At the Louvre, he admired Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Rubens, and Veronese, and also works by the painters from earlier in the century, especially Courbet and Delacroix.

Cézanne's late works frequently included wonderful watercolors where the artist patiently applied layer upon layer of color to have it culminate in a white spot, the brightest light, which he showed with the white of the paper itself. The underlying sketches are also visible in these watercolors and they show how colors are applied in a tentative attempt to keep that airiness and freshness that grew out of pure nature observation.

As he applied the layers of color, the translucent light of the white paper lent the colors a stunning brilliance and density. The series of Sainte-Victoire paintings fulfills Cézanne's idea of nature as something permanent and eternal, He paints the mountain as a crystalline structure which shows the core of creation behind the fleeting phenomena.

Still Life of Apples and Biscuits (1879/80)
Riverbanks (1904/05)

Winter, Jas De Bouffan (1880-90)
Montagne Sainte-Victoire, as seen from Les-Lauves (1904/05)
Post of Ginger and Fruit on a Table (1888-90)

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, seen from Les Lauves

1904-06, Oil on canvas/Huile sur toile, 60 x 72 cm, Kunstmuseum, Basel

Paul Cézanne paints the massif of Sainte-Victoire which is visible far and wide in the Provence as a monumental presence that watches over the landscape. Houses, trees, meadows, mountains, and even the sky are transformed into a sparkling play of color contrasts. The colored dots act as building blocks of a new pictorial language: warm to cold, light to dark, color contrast to color contrast. Cézanne called this new method of painting "modulation", actually a term from music for the switch from one key (major) to another (minor). Cézanne meant the difference from the common practice of modeling colors with black and white, applying a series of colors to create a dense structure.


Cézanne died on October 23, 1906, "sur le motif" just as he had wished, probably at work on his last picture Jourdan's Cottage.

bottom of page