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Ten Pithy Bits About Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne: Chronic malcontent, star pupil of Pissarro, or father of Modern Art? Yes, just yes. He was all those things.

In polished art history books, you’ll also learn that he was born to wealthy parents who fully expected him to pursue a career in law. But because he rebelled against their well-organized plans for his life, he was a frequent source of disappointment to his family.

Of course, they’d be astounded to know that his painstaking dedication to his passion ultimately helped him bridge the gap between Impressionism and Cubism. A shift that completely paved the way for the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

Bathers by Paul Cézanne (C. 1890)

But how were they to know? His life reads like a Greek tragedy. Here are ten pithy bits about the man who would posthumously change the Post-Impressionism art game:

  1. Rejection came early. Not only did his parents disapprove of Cézanne’s career goals, but he was turned away by the art school of his choice: The Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
  2. His contemporaries thought he was a savage: Even after he’d learned to paint and studied under the Impressionist patriarch Pissarro, most of his peers mocked his use of dark, somber colors, and generally thought he was an uncouth rube.
Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cézanne (1898-1900)
  1. He was ridiculed. When he’d attempt to join other painters in the Parisian cafes, they mocked his unkempt appearance and gruff demeanor. This led him to proclaim, “The world doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand the world!”
  2. He was crippled by self-doubt. The constant disdain for his work caused him to question his talents and new techniques, especially when he was rejected by the annual Salons and the Parisian art world at large.
  3. He didn’t like to be touched. At the time, this fed into his reputation as an eccentric misanthrope. But in today’s society we’d hopefully realize that he likely suffered from some form of autism, as well as social phobia and depression.
  4. He preferred painting still lifes to people. His models could never hold still long enough for his liking. They felt prisoner to his craft, often sitting for fourteen hours at a time. As a result, he resorted to mostly painting inanimate objects.
Apples by Paul Cézanne
  1. He withdrew from Parisian life. Because he clashed with mainstream society, he opted for that of an intensely private hermit. Some might attribute this to being socially awkward, but others simply refer to him as insufferable.
  2. He destroyed paintings that he didn’t find satisfactory. After Cézanne dropped out of the Paris scene, he became “the wild man of art.” He painted in the mountains and violently destroyed any works that he found less than perfect.
  3. His best friend crushed his soul. Émile Zola, his only remaining friend from childhood, published a novel about a failed artist who was thought to be a composite of Cézanne and Manet. When he found out, they never spoke again.

 Cézanne and I (Story of Cézanne’s tumultuous friendship with Émile Zola)

  1. A famed art dealer finally took a chance on him. In 1904, Ambrose Vollard set up an entire room at the Salon d’Automne dedicated to Cézanne’s work. Public interest finally began to pique.

But as with any Greek tragedy, Cézanne would never fully bask in the glory of having created an entirely new style of art. He died from pneumonia not even two years later after getting stranded painting in a violent rainstorm.

The silver lining? Cézanne accomplished what he intended. He invested blood, sweat, and tears to move art in an entirely different direction. Not only was he posthumously honored at a large retrospective exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in 1907, but later Picasso would refer to him as “the mother hovering over,” and Monet would call him, “the father of us all.”

The Card Players by Paul Cézanne (1892)

In the end, Cézanne garnered the respect he deserved in this lifetime. And, as sort of a macabre last laugh, his The Card Players stands as the most expensive piece of Post-Impressionism art sold at auction, netting $266 million.

As with love, the course of true artistry never did run smooth. But Paul Cézanne most assuredly left his intended mark.

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