Born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, France, Paul Cézanne was the son of a wealthy banker. This afforded him the financial freedom to pursue a career in art, a circumstance not available to many of his peers. Now regarded as one of the most influential of all Post-Impressionist painters, his first forays into the art world were not smooth.
While the artist was studying design at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Aix, his father urged him to pursue a more practical profession, and eventually convinced his son to enroll in the law school at the University of Aix-en-Provence while continuing to pursue the arts. Cézanne never completed his law degree. More important, it was during this period that he befriended the young Emile Zola – then a budding novelist and journalist – who would have a pivotal influence on Cézanne for the remainder of his life.
In 1861, at the age of 21, Cézanne convinced his father to allow him to enroll at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but his application was rejected. Instead, Cézanne studied at the Academie Suisse, also in Paris, but this first attempt at working among more advanced students discouraged him. Though he had completed a strong foundational course he lacked his peers’ technical skills, even if his passion for painting surpassed many. After just five months, he retreated back to Aix.
Encouraged by his friend Zola, in 1862 he returned to Paris. In the following months, Cézanne made the acquaintance of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. These new friends were essential in encouraging the young Cézanne to keep developing his artistic style, and though he repeatedly returned to Aix, Cézanne traveled back to Paris time and again.
Despite his earnest efforts, Cézanne’s paintings were ill-received, and his various submissions were rejected by the annual Salons—and even occasionally mocked by the press and the public. His works from the 1860s exemplified the vibrant energy of his youth, though they lacked the many signatures we now celebrate in the artist’s later work. For years, Zola, Monet, and Pissarro would be the few (if not the only) members of the art world to appreciate his emerging talent.
With their support, Cézanne made attempts at participating in the Impressionist art movement beginning in the mid-1870s. Highly imitative of his contemporaries, especially his close friend Pissarro (with whom he lived for two years in Pontoise), his efforts at Impressionism were largely failures. In an attempt to adapt to the popular style, Cézanne limited himself to painting only from nature. He adopted the heavy impasto approach of his peers while maintaining his signature use of vibrant color, in stark contrast to the subdued tones with which we now associate many Impressionist works.
Cézanne finally achieved his first true recognition in 1877, exhibiting 16 paintings in an Impressionist art exhibition. Though this was his first major showing, the works received mixed reviews. After this disappointment, the artist again retreated to his home in Aix, where he would remain for the longest stretch since his childhood. He did not exhibit again for almost 20 years.
The 1880s were characterized by a series of changes and immense personal hardship for Cézanne, pushing him further into isolation, and causing him to see less and less of his friends. In 1886, Cézanne’s father died. In the wake of his loss, Cézanne inherited the family fortune and married model Hortense Fiquet, with whom he had lived for the prior 17 years. The mother of Cézanne’s only son, Fiquet appears in many of Cézanne’s paintings, all of which portray her unsmiling. Learn more about our recent exhibition Madame Cézanne by purchasing the exhibition catalog here.
In the same year, Emile Zola published L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), which tells the story of an artist who, though he is a genius, fails to live up to his potential. Though fictional, the story bears a strong resemblance to Cézanne’s experience, and he took it as a mockery. Ultimately, the book destroyed the friendship between Cézanne and Zola.
These events, paired with Cézanne’s lack of patronage, led the artist to spend the next 15 years in solitude, with only his wife and son as companions. However, his determination to succeed as an artist meant that this period, though very lonely, would allow Cézanne to cultivate his own unique style without worrying about outside influences or public perception.
In his 50s, Cézanne began his reentry into artistic society by way of a series of exhibitions. The first was given by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and later he was shown at the Salon des Independents, where in 1904, an entire room was dedicated to his paintings. Two years later, Cézanne passed away at his home in Aix.
Just one year later, in 1907, his artistic achievements were celebrated at the Salon in a large-scale retrospective.
Though under-appreciated in his lifetime (other than by his close friends and contemporaries Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir), the work Cézanne created in the last 30 years of his life inspired groundbreaking shifts that shaped the future of artistic expression. The incredible flatness of his painting (in stark contrast to the impastoed surfaces popularized by the Impressionists), and his signature use of shading and color inspired the Cubists, Fauvists, and generations of painters to come, including the Abstract Expressionists.