Biography of Paul Cezanne, French Post-Impressionist

The Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne
The Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne.

Josse/Leemage / Getty Images

French artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was one of the most important post-impressionist painters. His work created bridges between nineteenth century impressionism and the development of key movements in twentieth-century art. He was particularly important as a precursor to cubism.

Fast Facts: Paul Cezanne

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Style: Post-impressionism
  • Born: January 19, 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, France
  • Died: October 22, 1906 in Aix-en-Provence, France
  • Parents: Louis Auguste Cezanne and Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert
  • Spouse: Marie-Hortense Fiquet
  • Child: Paul Cezanne
  • Selected Works: "The Bay of Marseille, Seen from L'Estaque" (1885), "The Card Players" (1892), "Mont Sainte-Victoire" (1902)
  • Notable Quote: "I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it to you."

Early Life and Training

Born and raised in the town of Aix-en-Provence in southern France, Paul Cezanne was the son of a wealthy banker. His father strongly encouraged him to follow the banking profession, but he rejected the suggestion. The decision was a source of conflict between the two, but the young artist received financial support from his father and eventually a sizable inheritance upon the elder Cezanne's death in 1886.

paul cezanne self portrait
"Self-Portrait" (1881). Heritage Images / Getty Images

While attending school in Aix, Paul Cezanne met and became close friends with the writer Emile Zola. They were part of a small group that referred to themselves as, "The Inseparables." Against the wishes of his father, Paul Cezanne moved to Paris in 1861 and lived with Zola.

Although he took evening drawing classes in 1859 in Aix, Cezanne was mostly a self-taught artist. He applied to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts twice but was turned down by the admissions jury. Instead of formal art education, Cezanne visited the Louvre Museum and copied works by masters like Michelangelo and Titian. He also attended the Academie Suisse, a studio that allowed young art students to draw from live models for a small membership fee. There, Cezanne met fellow struggling artists Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir who would soon become key figures in the development of impressionism.

Impressionism

In 1870, Paul Cezanne's early style of painting changed dramatically. Two key influences were his move to L'Estaque in southern France and his friendship with Camille Pissaro. Cezanne's work became mostly landscapes featuring lighter brushstrokes and the vibrant colors of the sun-washed landscape. His style was closely allied to the impressionists. During the years in L'Estaque, Cezanne understood that he should paint directly from nature.

cezanne bay of marseilles
"The Bay of Marseilles" (1885). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Paul Cezanne exhibited in the first and third impressionist shows of the 1870s. However, the criticism of academic reviewers deeply disturbed him. He avoided the Parisian art scene for most of the following decade.

Mature Period

In the 1880s, Paul Cezanne took up a stable home in southern France with his mistress Hortense Fiquet. They married in 1886. Cezanne's work began to separate from the principles of the impressionists. He was not interested in depicting a fleeting moment by focusing on changing light. Instead, he was more interested in the permanent architectural qualities of the landscapes he saw. He chose to make color and form the dominant elements of his paintings.

Cezanne painted many views of the Bay of Marseilles from the village of L'Estaque. It was one of his favorite views in all of France. The colors are vibrant, and the buildings are broken down into rigidly architectural shapes and forms. Cezanne's break from the impressionists caused art critics to consider him one of the most prominent of post-impressionist painters.

Always interested in a sense of permanence in the natural world, Cezanne created a series of paintings titled "The Card Players" around 1890. He believed the image of men playing cards had a timeless element. They would gather again and again to do the same thing oblivious to events in the surrounding world.

cezanne card players
"The Card Players" (1892). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Paul Cezanne studied the still life paintings of the Dutch and French Old Masters at the Louvre. Eventually, he developed his own style of painting still life using the sculptural, architectural approach he used in painting buildings in landscapes.

Later Work

Cezanne's pleasing life in southern France came to an end in 1890 with a diabetes diagnosis. The disease would color the rest of his life, turning his personality darker and more reclusive. In his last years, he spent long periods of time alone, focusing on his painting and ignoring personal relationships.

In 1895, Paul Cezanne visited the Bibemus Quarries near Mont Sainte-Victoire. The shapes he painted in landscapes featuring the mountain and the quarries inspired the later cubism movement.

Cezanne's last years included a strained relationship with his wife, Marie-Hortense. The death of the artist's mother in 1895 increased the tension between husband and wife. Cezanne spent much of the time in his last years alone and disinherited his wife. He left all of his wealth to their son, Paul.

In 1895 he also had his first one-man exhibition in Paris. Famed art dealer Ambroise Vollard set up the show, and it included more than one hundred paintings. Unfortunately, the general public largely ignored the show.

The primary subject matter of Paul Cezanne's work in his last years was Mont Sainte-Victoire and a series of paintings of bathers dancing and celebrating in a landscape. The last works featuring the bathers became more abstract and focused on form and color, like Cezanne's landscape and still life paintings.

© Philadelphia Museum of Art; used with permission
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906). The Large Bathers, 1906. Oil on canvas. 82 7/8 x 98 3/4 in. (210.5 x 250.8 cm). Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1937. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paul Cezanne died on October 22, 1906, in his family home in Aix of complications from pneumonia.

Transition to the 20th Century

Cezanne was a critical transitional figure between the art world of the late 1800s and the new century. He deliberately broke from the impressionist focus on the nature of light to explore color and form of the objects he saw. He understood painting as something like an analytical science exploring the structure of his subjects.

Following Cezanne's innovations, fauvism, cubism, and expressionism, the movements that dominated the early twentieth-century avant-garde Parisian art scene, were concerned primarily with material subject matter instead of the transient impact of light.

cezanne still life with drape and jug
"Still Life with Drape and Jug Decorated with Flowers" (1895). Sergio Anelli / Getty Images

Legacy

As Paul Cezanne became more reclusive in his last years, his reputation as an innovative artist rose among young artists. Pablo Picasso was one of the new generation who considered Cezanne a masterful leading light in the art world. Cubism, in particular, owes a significant debt to Cezanne's interest in the architectural forms in his landscapes.

A 1907 retrospective of Cezanne's work, a year after his death, finally focused acclaim on his importance to the development of twentieth-century art. The same year Pablo Picasso painted his landmark "Demoiselles d'Avignon" clearly influenced by Cezanne's paintings of bathers.

Sources

  • Danchev, Alex. Cezanne: A Life. Pantheon, 2012.
  • Rewald, John. Cezanne: A Biography. Harry N. Abrams, 1986.