Paul Cézanne part 3: The painter eluded by the contour
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.
He displayed there a number of canvases, but one of the most important critics of that time wrote that it was impossible to imagine a jury that would agree to accept Cézanne’s works. A comparatively liberal female journalist, hiding behind the pseudonym Marc de Montifaud, called A Modern Olympia the work of a mad man suffering from delirium tremens; a picture in which “a nightmare is represented as a sensual vision.” The opinions on Cézanne’s painting did not seem so awful against the overall background of criticism. The exhibition brought gratification, too; the collector Count Doria bought a landscape entitled The House of the Hanged Man (p. 32), which was called an “appalling daub” in Leroy’s celebrated article.
However, after all these insults and derision, Cézanne retreated to Aix leaving Hortense and her son, the young Paul, who was born in 1872, in Paris.
During the third exhibition of the Impressionists in 1877, Cézanne was honoured with special attention of the Charivari critic Louis Leroy, who singled him out as the target of his most subtle insults. Paul exhibited canvases typical of the genres he preferred at that time: landscapes, portraits, some still lifes and bathers. Toward the end of the 1870s, bathers became the symbol of his figurative compositions. Cézanne’s work featured less and less narrative pictures, preferring more and more objects and motifs.
At the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1880s, Cézanne lived much of the time in Paris and worked in the area, in Melun or Médan-sur-Seine, at Zola’s. Thus he sometimes painted the banks of the Oise, the Auvers or the Pontoise where Pissarro lived. He could be sometimes seen in Normandy. Needless to say Cézanne regularly returned to his native Provence, as he was too attached to his roots. His principal difficulty at this time was his relationship with his family and the need to hide from his father the existence of his son and Hortense whom he could not resolve to marry. Despite all his contrivances, his father eventually found out about the grandchild’s existence.
The year 1886 was an extraordinary one in Cézanne’s life. The publication of Zola’s L’OEuvre was a shock to all the artists of the Impressionists’ circle. The publication of L’OEuvre meant for Cézanne the end of a lifelong friendship with Zola.
The character of Claude Lantier in L’OEuvre a failure who did not succeed in realising his ambitions, deeply annoyed him. On April 4, 1886, Cézanne wrote to Zola to thank him for the book, which he had not yet had the time to read. This was the last letter they sent each other. Zola’s novel was one of the reasons for Cézanne’s fleeing Paris. He was afraid that all his acquaintances would see in him the hero of L’OEuvre.
On the other hand, the problems of Cézanne’s family life solved themselves one after the other that year. In the spring of 1886, on the advice of his mother and sister Marie, Cézanne officially married Hortense at the Aix town hall. His son, Paul, was fourteen years old, and the matrimonial relations between him and Hortense were, in fact, dead. In October, at the age of eighty-eight, Louis-Auguste Cézanne died, and Paul inherited from him nearly 400,000 francs. The artist was thus able to settle all his debts and no longer needed to worry about his livelihood. Painting remained the only thing in his life.
Cézanne henceforth worked most of his time in Aix, rarely going to Paris. He refused to be exhibited, even with the Independents, where there was no jury. Gradually his circle of contacts became extremely narrow, the Paris of the arts almost forgot the strange Provençal.
In 1895, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, recently established in Paris, decided on a risky experiment: he resolved to organise an exhibition of Cézanne’s works in his gallery at 39, rue Lafitte. Cézanne agreed to the exhibition and sent Vollard nearly 150 rolled pictures from Aix. They were paintings from all the periods of his work. The large number of works was an expression of his appreciation for the recognition that he no longer expected from his contemporaries. Cézanne was right to trust Vollard although the task was difficult for the latter. For the first time the Vollard exhibition allowed Cézanne to demonstrate the path along which he had travelled and the results he had achieved. The Impressionists rejoiced. Camille Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien: “My admiration is nothing compared to Renoir’s delight. Even Degas fell under the spell of this refined barbarian. Monet too, and all of us…really, could we have been mistaken? I don’t think so.” The critics, on the whole, were horrified. However, the editor of the magazine Revue blanche, Thadée Nathanson, wrote that Cézanne was an original and obstinate creator. The critic appreciated the fact that Cézanne concentrated on one single aim and that he knowingly pursued it. He said, shortly before his
death: “I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art found in museums.”
Cézanne demonstrated the conversion of Impressionism into “something solid and lasting” most of all in his landscapes. It seemed that he was not able to admire nature directly and could not experience the full vibration of colours. He had to organise it and construct his own landscape. He felt like an architect of nature. His affection for nature was completely natural and immutable. When he lived in Provence, he used the motif every day, like an obligation.
When he lived near the Mediterranean, he created yet another type of landscape. While working on a landscape at the seashore, in L’Estaque, he wrote Pissarro: “It is like a playing card. Red roofs on a blue sea… There are motifs which would require three or four months of work, could one find it, for there the vegetation never changes. There are olive trees and pines which never lose their leaves.” The result is a canvas made up of several touches of well defined colours which represent the quintessence of the south: the blue sea, red roofs and the green trees.
He also often painted his favourite mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, from a high viewpoint. The valley spreads out at his feet, sprinkled with squares and circles representing houses and trees. The mountain’s cone encloses the picture. He removed everything unnecessary from the landscape, using only clear geometric forms to compose it. Nevertheless nature does not lose its poetic aspect that Cézanne had already felt in his childhood.
Read part 1 here
Read part 2 here
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