Paul Cezanne

Born in 1839, Paul Cezanne was the illegitimate son of a prosperous hat retailer. As a child, he was an excellent scholar, though not very outgoing. At the age of 20, he studied law for a year before declaring his interest in art to his dominating father. He was eventually allowed to go to Paris to study art, but after six-months, self-doubt leading to bouts of depression forced him to return home. He worked for his father for a year before attempting to resume his career in art.

Cezanne returned to Paris and sat, but failed the entrance examination for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official school of painting. He lived off an allowance from his father, continued to paint, and submitted paintings to the Salon’s annual exhibition, but these were rejected time and time again.

Cezanne’s character was timid yet argumentative. He could be deliberately awkward in company. Although only in his twenties, he became known as an eccentric by his fellow artists, Degas, Manet, and Renoir. He hated any form of interference, which developed into a pathological dislike of being touched. His paintings of the 1860 were morbid and sexual. They commonly depicted corpses, murder, rape and orgies.

At the age of 30, Cezanne met Hortense, a young model and seamstress, who became his mistress. He gradually abandoned gruesome subjects, and turned to painting landscapes and latterly still-life.

In 1872, Hortense bore Cezanne a son, but he did not tell his own father, whom he was terrified of. Cezanne spent the next two years as the student of Camille Pissarro, followed by a solitary existence lasting ten years. In 1886, his father died, leaving a sizeable inheritance. Now a wealthy man, Cezanne withdrew further into his shell, and generally cut himself off from the outside world.

When Cezanne was in his 50s, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard discovered his work and organised an exhibition. Two years later, Vollard visited Cezanne’s studio, and bought every painting.

In Cezanne’s later years, his health deteriorated, until one day in 1906 when, angered by a small increase in the cost of the carriage he used to get around, he gave-up the coach. He got drenched in a downpour, and died of pneumonia a week later.

Cezanne was taught the techniques of Impressionism by Pissarro, but adapted them. He was not interested in imitating the real world. His brush strokes were regular oblongs, arranged in parallel to form a uniform pattern across his paintings. He strived to emphasise the flat, 2-dimensional nature of paint on canvas. He exploited the phenomenon where by warm colours advance, and cool colours recede as a single alternative to modelling subjects/objects with light and shade. He also attempted to represent depth by overlapping patches of paint, so that one colour might appear to be in front of another. Objects were invariably shown from different viewpoints, and in his still-life paintings, items often appear to be about to slide off the table. Impatient and uneasy with people, he also found them difficult to paint.

Cezanne is yet another eccentric artist of the nineteen century who is considered to be a “great” artist. He is credited with being the father of modern art, and paving the way for abstract art.

I do not consider Cezanne to be a great artist. His reliance on the single technique of colour temperature to convey depth, and the abandonment of light, shade and perspective, is a backward step towards flat pre-Renaissance art. I also consider his inability to tackle a breadth of subjects to be a major shortfall in his artistic competence.

Portraits by John Burton

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Portrait artist working mainly from clients' own photographs.

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Paul Cezanne