Paul Cézanne Part 4: The artist who swore to die painting
Cézanne had progressed all his life toward this geometric simplicity, but he expressed it in words for the first time only two years before his death. During his visit to Aix in 1904, Émile Bernard recalled that Cézanne complained of the modern school of painting, declaring: “One should first study the geometric forms: the cone, the cube, the cylinder, and the sphere.”
Cézanne never painted spheres, cones and cylinders; he preferred oranges, apples, peaches or onions. Still life was for him the ideal genre: fruit and objects were patient, and they did not change. It was possible to paint them for a long time, for days, weeks and even months.
In Cézanne’s portraits expression gave way more often than not to normalised forms, subject to the laws of geometry. Brush strokes emphasised the roundness of his own head in his self-portraits or in the classical face of his wife. Those close to Cézanne said that Hortense was the perfect Cézanne model – very patient, she endured a multitude of sittings. And Cézanne painted her many times, never trying to find a new interesting angle, but improving his ability to build a form with the help of pure colour. In the last years of his life, Cézanne often painted one of his neighbours – a farmer or his gardener. It is difficult to call their pictures portraits. Cézanne had his model sit in a comfortable, steady pose and set about arranging colours to form the torso, hands and head. Human figure became a sort of still life; they were motionless, like objects.
After the expressive compositions of 1869, pictures appeared which were devoid of both subject and emotion. In Pierrot and Harlequin (Shrove Tuesday) (p. 38) he depicted the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, reminiscent of eighteenth century dandies and the paintings of Watteau. Contemporaries said that Paul Cézanne the younger had posed for Harlequin, and one of his friends for Pierrot.
After his experience of Impressionism, Cézanne was unable to work without colour. Colour is the basis of everything in his compositions, both the construction of the picture and the shape of the subject. Numerous canvases with bathers allowed Cézanne to experiment with the classical composition of naked models. The Card Players (p.43) represents an ideally balanced, almost symmetrical composition in which the human figures become objects like the bottle standing on the table. The precise and well-organized system upon which Cézanne based his paintings shocked people after the seemingly disorganised Impressionism. And it was just this system which allowed the next generation of artists to learn a good deal from Cézanne’s paintings which they discovered during the exhibition of 1906.
Among all the people Cézanne met at the beginning of the twentieth century were two Nabis artists: the theoretician of this group, Maurice Denis, and his friend, Ker Xavier Roussel. During a trip to Provence they visited Cézanne in Aix. Another young artist, Charles Camoin, also called on Cézanne. It was with these young artists of the future that Cézanne became aware of the role he played in painting and he tried to understand the animosity of his contemporaries.
He wrote to one of his young friends: “I am perhaps before my time. I was the painter of your generation, more than of mine.” There was not much time left to demonstrate the truth of this. During the 1906 Spring Salon, in the part where nobody in principle was part of the official exhibition, an exhibition of the recluse from Aix was already being prepared.
Cézanne, meanwhile, had been continuing to work with his former perseverance. The letters of his last autumn reflect the drama of the artist’s life. He wrote to Bernard on September 21, 1906. “…I am old and sick, and I have sworn to die painting rather than sink into shameful decrepitude, which threatens the old who let themselves be dominated by soul-destroying passions.”
Cézanne wrote on October 15, 1906: “Dear Paul, it rained Saturday and Sunday, there were storms and the weather has cooled. It is no longer hot at all… It is still difficult to work, but at last, there is some relief.” On that day, Cézanne, as always, got up early to go and paint his favourite motif – Mont Sainte-Victoire. He refused to take a coach and carried all his equipment himself. When a thunderstorm struck, he continued to paint, hoping that the weather would improve. Soaked and tired, he collapsed on the way home. A coachman picked up Cézanne and took him from a laundry to his home.
Over the next few days he tried to work, although his health was deteriorating. Cézanne died on October 22, 1906, from pneumonia, failing to live long enough to see the opening of his triumphal exhibition at the Salon d’Automne. Some of Cézanne’s biographers said that it was his favourite mountain that killed him.
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