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Paul Cezanne: The Student

Cezanne was born in 1839 in the provincial city of Aix en Provence. His father, who had been a hat manufacturer and then became a banker, had accumulated a comfortable fortune. An important fact in Cezanne's boyhood and early youth was his friendship with a bright and ambitious youngster just his own age who also lived in Aix -- Emile Zola. They were best friends, and for a while, as young men, they imagined themselves making their careers together in Paris, Zola at his writing, Cezanne at his painting. But as it turned out, while Zola was becoming famous Cezanne was working in obscurity or exhibiting with scandalous receptions. Zola at first championed Cezanne as he championed Manet. But his faith in Cezanne wavered; Zola's perceptions, when it came to painting, were not always equal to his crusading spirit.

Finally the friendship broke permanently, in 1886, when Zola published his novel L'Oeuvre, the story of a painter who worked against the current of popular taste and understanding. The hero is recognizable as a composite of Cezanne, Manet (who could not object, having died three years before), and the typical concept of the artist as a bohemian renegade from society. Cezanne was deeply wounded. In a sad and polite letter he thanked Zola for the copy of the book he had sent, but he never spoke to him again.

Painting, Cezanne, year

Altogether, 1886 was a climatic year in Cezanne's life. he finally married a former model named Hortense Fiquet, after a liaison of some seventeen years which had produced a son who was now entering adolescence, and in the fall, Cezanne's father died and left him a fortune. Combined with the break with Zola and the sobering approach of late middle age, these were definitive events, although his relationship with Hortense had ceased to mean much. She spent most of her time in Paris with their son. Cezanne stayed on in Aix with his aged mother, seeing very few people, not even his old impressionist friends who used to occasionally visit him. Almost a recluse, moody and difficult, he painted for the next twenty years with no other thought than to reach a conclusion of the problems he had set himself. This was the fourth and last of the periods into which Cezanne's work falls.

Painting, Cezanne, year

Cezanne's first period is one of hesitancy, confusion, and groping. At twenty he was studying law in Aix in accordance with his father's wishes, but in accordance with his own he was also working in the local art school. On the side he was trying to fumble through the study of painting by himself, working in a strong but dark and oppressive manner suggested by seventeenth-century Italian and Spanish painting, which he knew largely in reproductions. In 1861 his father allowed him to abandon his half hearted efforts to go through with the study of law, and he went to Paris to join Zola and prepare for entrance to the Academy's school. He worked in the Academie Suisse, an odd studio opened by a one-time model named Suisse, where models but no instructors were supplied. Delacroix had worked there at one time, and Courbet. Cezanne met Monet there, and Pissarro. Like everyone who came in contact with Pissarro, Cezanne revered him, and continued to do so all his life, referring to him as the "humble and colossal" Pissarro.

Such drawings as have remained from Cezanne's early days as a student are vigorous, rather blocky, with a concentration on massive, simplified forms within the slightly bulging contours of the baroque manner Cezanne admired at the time. They were far from the academic tradition, and Cezanne's application for admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts was rejected. He returned to Aix and tried to work in his father's bank for a while, but before long he was back in Paris.

He admired the painting of Delacroix for its swirling forms, of Courbet for its weight and solidity, and he admired many academic painters, especially Courture. His interest in baroque painters with their strong chiaroscuro continued. It was a hodgepodge of enthusiasms, and Cezanne never managed to harmonize them during this first, or "romantic" period, which lasted up to 1872. He frequently used Courbet's palette-knife technique, exaggerating it until the strokes defining the broad planes were modeled almost as if in clay. There are many emotionalized subjects, sometimes in the form of allegories, often suggesting frustrations and confusions. There are religious subjects, including some "copies" which are very free adaptations of well-known baroque paintings. In this manner there is the odd and rather disturbing Washing of a Corpse, which at first glance seems to be a Pieta, or mourning of Christ.

Painting, Cezanne, year
 

During these years Cezanne met Hortense Fiquet (pictured) - in 1869 - and their son was born. Cezanne was in and out of Paris, where he never really felt at home. He spent the time of the Franco-Prussian War in the Commune in Aix and in the village of l'Estaque, near Marseilles, avoiding the draft, and in 1872 he
worked with Pissarro at Pontoise. Under this benign influence he entered his second, or impressionist, period.

Cezanne's impressionist period runs from 1872 to 1877. By 1878 he had discovered what Renoir was to discover five years later; he was the first impressionist to turn away from transient effects in landscape, if indeed he can be said ever to have accepted them. His great link with impressionism was Pissarro, who himself kept a fairly tight rein on impressionism's tendency to dissolve form into tinted veils. Later Cezanne objected even to Pissarro's impressionism, saying that if he, Pissarro, had kept on as he had started, he would have been the greatest of them all. But Cezanne felt that, instead, Pissarro had succumbed to the common failing.

The two men worked side by side at Auvers, where Cezanne painted The House of the Hanged Man, which has become the standard example of his impressionist period. It was exhibited in the first group show, to which Cezanne was admitted upon Pissarro's insistence over general objections. Manet even gave as a reason for not exhibiting that he could not afford to commit himself alongside Cezanne, who was thought of as a little freakish even by those other members who sensed his strength. And Cezanne gave them plenty of reason for feeling so. He was rough in manner, sometimes surly, always unsure of himself, and defensively contemptuous of fine manners.

When the impressionist exhibition opened, Cezanne's pictures were the most ferociously attacked of all. (It goes without saying that all this time, and for a long time after, Cezanne was regularly rejected from the Salon.) Yet, as an impressionist painting, The House of the Hanged Man is much more concerned with formal definition, much less with light effects, than the average.

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