Paul Cézanne part 2: He paints as if he was Rothschild

When Cézanne was painting with his friends – the Impressionists – the difference between their works was striking. The motifs of his landscapes are those same banks of the Seine which Claude Monet, Sisley and Pissarro painted. Monet fragmented the colours of the trees and their reflections in the water into a multitude of minute flecks of pure colour, achieving impressions of movement and his colours radiated the sunlight. Cézanne, on the contrary, selected a single, conventional, sufficiently dark greenish blue with which he painted both the water and the bank of the Marne. He needed colour only to extrapolate volume. The effect proved to be directly the opposite of the impressionistic: the smooth river was absolutely still and not a single leaf fluttered on the trees, which stood out on the canvas like dense rounded masses.

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Paul Cézanne, Pierrot and Arlequin (Shrove Tuesday), 1888-1890. Oil on canvas, 102 x 81 cm. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

However, it was impossible to reproach Cézanne for negligence with ‘plein air’ – he had been working and shaping his art along with the Impressionists. The same as they, he even imparted huge significance to the observation of nature.

Cézanne thought that one of the most difficult tasks for an artist was to know how to see in nature what an ordinary, unsophisticated observer was in no condition to see, not only the object itself, but the environment almost imperceptible by the human eye.

Indeed, in Cézanne’s opinion, the painter is supposed to catch in the life around him not a momentary transient impression; its theme is nature eternal and unchanging, such as it was created by God.

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Paul Cézanne, Harlequin, c. 1888-1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 65 cm. Rothschild Collection, Cambridge.

This constitutes Cézanne’s second thesis. The rough nature of the Impressionists’ pictures was unsuitable for the resolution of this task. Their composition did not seem to have been thought out earlier, and they bore in themselves the reflection of that very same chance of impression to which they aspired.

Cézanne constructed all of his own canvases, whether a landscape, a still life or a figurative picture, according to the rules of classical composition. Any fragment of nature was for Cézanne the embodiment of the world’s eternity, the most intimate motif became a cause for the creation of a monumental painting.

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Paul Cézanne, The Eternal Woman, c. 1877. Oil on canvas, 43 x 53 cm. Private collection, New York.

His Great Pine near Aix (p. 53), the favourite pine tree of his happy childhood, shows an impressionistic joy of life. The floating, blurred splotches of colour in the background create a sensation of heated air. However, the picture was constructed according to a strict geometric scheme: the trunk of the pine became the core of the composition, the spreading branches made up its frame. The green of the crown combined with the blue of the sky and the gold of the sunlight embody the colour basis of the world’s beauty. Each of Cézanne’s landscapes approaches his ideal, according to his own words, “We must become classic again through nature.”

However, observation of nature, for Cézanne, was only a part of the process for creating a painting. “Imagine Poussin completely reconstructed from nature, that’s what I mean by classic,” he said.

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Paul Cézanne, Bathers, c. 1890-1892. Oil on canvas, 60 x 82 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Cézanne often painted outdoors in Provence. Sometimes artist friends called on him, and they worked together. Simultaneously, he worked on sketches in his studio in Jas de Bouffan, not one of which has been preserved. It is possible that Cézanne, who as before had been dissatisfied with himself, destroyed them. His father still hoped that Paul would give up painting, and he threw every obstacle in his way, and Paul was reduced to despair. “I am here with my family,” Nonetheless, his father continued to support Paul with money. Paul’s mother and sisters, judging by his letters from Aix, modelled for him more than once. In the 1860s, Paul created in Jas de Bouffan one of his best paintings, which was dedicated to Wagner – Girl at the Piano. (The Ouverture to Tannhäuser) (p. 26-27).

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Paul Cézanne, The Estaque, c. 1878-1879. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 73 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Cézanne portrayed one of his sisters playing the piano, and his mother, or another sister, sitting on a divan with needlework in her hands. In essence, it would have been possible to ascribe this painting to genre painting; however, there is no development of the subject in it; as Édouard Manet, and as all his impressionist friends, Cézanne was against literature in his painting. Cézanne had created a monumental picture based on an everyday motif. The composition had been constructed according to the best classical standards. A specific area of the room was confined from two sides as side scenes: the piano and an armchair in the shape of the letter ‘L’. The limit of the divan’s back forms a vertical axis in the centre. The figures of the women are at an equal distance from the axis. Movement is completely absent in the picture, the characters are frozen, like mannequins. In the painting of the impressionist Renoir, white clothing vibrated with a multitude of blue, green and rose hues. Cézanne paints his sister’s dress with huge strokes of pure whites; colour is completely absent in the grey shadows.

The extrapolation in Cézanne’s painting gradually became bolder, the strokes, coarser. Changes of colour were of no interest to him; he was communicating those qualities of the subject that are permanent: volume and form.

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Paul Cézanne, The Bather, c. 1885. Oil on canvas, 127 x 96.8 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In the middle of the 1860s, Cézanne did a great deal of portraits in Aix. He attempted to paint outdoors the friends of his youth, Antoine Marion and Antonin Valabrègue – who later became an art critic. Dominic, his grandfather sat for Cézanne many times. Playing on his name, Paul portrayed Dominic as a Dominican monk, in a white monk’s habit. He painted forcefully, often applying colour with a palette knife, dividing colours with a black outline, exploring different means of expression.

At the same time, the portrait of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, the artist’s father, was painted reading the newspaper L’Évènement. The figure of his father possesses those characteristic features which make him meaningful. However, reproducing the volume, which mattered to him very much, was provided by a style of painting he had discovered (p. 29).

The portrait of Achille Emperaire (p. 28) was also painted in the 1860s. This strange character was also one of Cézanne’s close friends. Emperaire was fascinated with art and loved painting. In Paris he and Cézanne walked around the Louvre, admiring Rubens and the Venetians. Cézanne painted Achille’s portrait in Aix. He depicted his model in a dressing gown and sat him in the same armchair in which he had painted his father.

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Paul Cézanne, The Smoker, 1890-1892. Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 73.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

At the end of the 1860s, Cézanne was in a state of agonising quests. On the one hand, he was full of respect for the masters of the past, for the classics. At the same time, he was convinced that their way was not suitable for him; outdoors, and only the outdoors, is exactly what an artist of his time needs. His conversation with Pissarro convinced him to a great extent. He states in a letter to Zola, “But, you see! All indoors, studio painting will never match those done outdoors”. He painted views of the Aix vicinity, the valley with the aqueduct and Mont Sainte-Victoire, usually from a height, from which they had viewed the landscape during their childhood outings. He once more offered his landscapes, portraits and nudes for the Salon jury’s verdict, and once more they did not accept them.

The events of the Paris Commune and the Franco-Prussian War did not find any appreciable reflection in Cézanne’s works and life.

Many meaningful events occurred for him during these years of his life. He had very likely met Marie-Hortense Fiquet as early as 1869. The beautiful brunette with a classical face had shown up at Cézanne’s studio as a model.

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Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, c. 1890-1895. Oil on canvas, 47.5 x 57 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Life with Hortense brought Paul new difficulties; he had to conceal her existence from his father because he was able to deprive Paul of his cash allowance.

Simultaneously, he painted a picture with bathers, Pastoral (Idyll) (p. 30), and a harsh, violent composition under the name of The Murder. Magdalene or Grief, suffering, full of passion and painted in a sharp expressive stroke, belongs to this same series of pictures.

These pictures can be called narrative only in relation to the others. They were most likely his reflection on life, an outlet for his own passions and in a way a tribute to Symbolism. A Modern Olympia (p. 34) was the conclusion of this cycle.

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Paul Cézanne, Woman with a Coffee Pot, c. 1890-1895. Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 96.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

It is well known that, while discussing Manet’s Olympia, with a friend of the Impressionists, Doctor Gachet, Cézanne declared, “I can also do something similar to Olympia.” Gachet replied: “Well, do it.” So his canvas could be perceived as a kind of parody of Manet’s painting; there are many common components: the black-skinned servant as well as the flowers. It is, however, a protest aimed at the respected master; yet another of Cézanne’s arguments in his constant battle against Impressionism and against Manet. In comparison to Manet’s cold, elegant, model Victorine Meurent, Cézanne’s Olympia, curled into a ball in a ray of dazzling light, embodies a bundle of passions and, very likely, his personal drama. And the artist himself, enveloped in the smoke of a water pipe, contemplates her, like a spectator would the actress on the stage. Nevertheless, it was through the scandal caused by A Modern Olympia during the first exhibition of the Impressionists that Cézanne first became famous…

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