Paul Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839. After studying classical literature, at age twenty he decided to become a painter and was soon traveling back and forth to Paris, where he was reunited with his childhood friend, the novelist Emile Zola. He frequented the independent Academie Suisse, copied paintings in the Louvre, and admired the work of Delacroix in the Luxembourg Museum.
He was never admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and his paintings were refused time and again by the jury of the Salon, which found them provocative, crudely executed, violently lit, and excessively agitated. In 1866 Cezanne became interested in still life, and in The Black Clock (ca. 1870) he hit upon an idiosyncratic rigor and balance that set his future course.
In 1872, he settled in Pontoise for a time to paint alongside Camille Pissarro, who taught him the joys and advantages of painting in the open air. His palette lightened thereafter and he began his quest for modern landscape compositions of classical solidity. In 1874 he took part in the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Disappointed by its poor reception, he renounced public exhibition and returned to his family’s estate outside Aix-en-Provence.
In Provence he was able to work in solitude, with a minimum of distraction. While he continued to paint in the open air, he reacted against the Impressionist search for the ephemeral moment, seeking instead a formal equilibrium based on the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere. As an object’s various sides appear to have different colors, he used hue to convey volume. Working like a mason, he built up his compositions using color and geometric form. While rigorously composed, his landscapes, still lifes, and imposing portraits manage to convey the fracturing nature of the painter’s gaze. He sometimes applied his pigment in short parallel strokes that align like iron filings to a magnet.
The year 1886 was a turning point in Cezanne’s life. He finally married Hortense Fiquet, who had become the mother of his son Paul in 1872. Six months later his father died, leaving him an immense fortune. Finally, Emile Zola published a novel, The Masterpiece, depicting Cezanne in an unflattering light, prompting the artist to end their long friendship.
In 1895, Cezanne had his first one- man exhibition in the gallery of the great dealer Ambroise Vollard. Allthough there were many bad reviews, his painter friends were enthusiastic. A handful of critics, too, had begun to understand his artistic aims, and expressed admiration for them.
Cezanne continued to live a withdrawn life in Aix-en-Provence, working intensely in a new house and studio built to his specifications on the city’s outskirts. With dogged determination, he depicted a few themes over and over: still lifes of flowers and fruit, the nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire, portraits, and three large compositions of bathers. Painted slowly over a period of many months in a limited but rich palette, these last works feature massive female figures that seem to fuse with the surrounding landscape.
In the autumn of 1906, while painting in the environs of the city, the aged artist was caught in a sudden rainstorm; shortly after, he fell gravely ill and died.
A posthumous exhibition mounted at the Paris Salon d’Automne in 1907 marked the public acceptance of Cezanne’s greatness. His work had brought painting to the threshold of abstraction; his example proved crucial for the birth of Cubism, and indeed for that of modern art as a whole.