Book Review: Cézanne: A Life

The popular image of Paul Cézanne is of a cantankerous loner, set apart by the financial independence provided by his banker father and by uncouth provincialism, most of his painting done in his native Provence. That he managed to sell only to friends (albeit what friends: his artistic mentor Pissarro, Monet, and so on) until he was 35, and did not have an exhibition until he was 56, fuel the myth of the victimised outsider.

As Georges Braque, one of his artistic debtors, said: ‘Cézanne was alone for so long, so misunderstood. He needed a rare strength of character to persevere. Even Emile Zola, his boyhood friend, was to abandon him, betray him. He came to regard him as the prototype of the failed and impotent painter. Cézanne realized this when he read his friend’s novel L’Oeuvre. Fortunately, his faith in his own art was unshakeable.’

And then there is the difficulty of the art. Spurned by the Salon in his lifetime, like his now famous Impressionist contemporaries, he only began to be publicly acclaimed after the small 1907 memorial show, part of the Grand Palais’s ‘Salon d’automne’, described by Alex Dachev as ‘the most consequential exhibition of modern times’. Yet, even a disciple like the painter Maurice Denis wrote: ‘I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me a clear and precise reason for his admiration.’

Mr Dachev’s exhaustive research, not least of Zola’s novels, provides a much fuller understanding of the man, which helps elucidate the art. Cézanne was a proud Aixois, but not parochial. A ‘mighty reader’, at school, he was top in sciences and the humanities and he remained profoundly influenced, morally and perceptually, by the great Classical writers. Horace, in particular, he could recite ‘by the yard’.

When he defended the younger Zola, a bullied scholarship wimp, in the school playground, a lifelong bond was forged. Zola thanked him with a basket of apples. Apples were not the only subject in Cézanne’s art to go back a long way. So did his obsession with bathers, trees and Mont Sainte-Victoire, a legacy of happy holidays spent swimming, dreaming and hunting with his new friend against the backdrop of the mountain. Estrangement in middle age was less to do with Zola’s ‘bet-rayal’ than his celebrity lifestyle.

‘Institutions, pensions and honours are made only for cretins, humbugs and rascals,’ Cézanne fulminated. But the bond never broke. Cézanne wailed with sorrow when Zola died. So Cézanne needs no pity. He lived by his rules and never doubted his destiny. As he repeated to his only son Paul, ‘apple of his eye’ (another apple): ‘Politicians, there are 2,000 of them in every legislature, but a Cézanne, there is only one every two centuries.’

There are other overdue revisions. In his biography, John Rewald dismissed Cézanne’s wife, Hortense, in a paragraph, yet Cézanne painted her more times than anyone except himself. She deserves respect and receives it. An influential 1968 essay by Meyer Schapiro, arguing that the artist had a serious problem with women, is similarly disproved.

A fruitily expressed and mistranslated quotation is shown to have meant only that models tended to shift their pose, which was anathema to him; a shift in pose changed the tones and the picture was lost. It explained the difficulty he had finishing anything and the relentless seeking to do better, which often resulted in portraits abandoned after countless sittings or landscapes left to rot in the fields.

His art proved the cornerstone of 20th-century abstraction because every mark of his ‘sensations colorantes’ was of equal importance. In that pursuit, he found redemption. Hard work overcomes everything, Zola had told him in their youth, quoting Virgil, and the older Cézanne became, the truer it proved.

‘Certainly an artist wishes to improve himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man should remain obscure,’ he wrote. To the benefit of the many who will be enthralled, inspired and perhaps even comforted by this book, Mr Danchev doesn’t agree.