Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence on January 19, 1839, the first son of a prosperous hatter, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, who later became a banker. Paul, as an only child, had his career chosen by his father, who decided that the young man should become a lawyer and prepare to manage the nascent family fortune. By 1857, however, Cézanne had begun taking classes at the free drawing school attached to the Musée d’Aix (now the Musée Granet). Giving in to parental pressure, he enrolled in Aix Law School the following year, but had already settled into a life as an artist.
In 1861, Cézanne abandoned his law studies and made his first visit to Paris, encouraged by his childhood friend, the novelist Emile Zola. Paris was the center of the art world, an essential destination for any emerging artist, and Cézanne made repeated trips to the capital over the next twelve years, absorbing much that was critical to his later artistic achievements. He frequented the salon, studied the Old Masters and copied Delacroix at the Louvre, and forged friendships with many important artists, including Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, and Henri Fantin-Latour. But it was Camille Pissarro who became a major influence on Cézanne’s life after the two met in the early 1860s at the Académie Suisse in Paris.
By the mid-1860s, Cézanne had established himself as a painter, albeit with minimal official success: he was refused entry to the École des Beaux-Arts and systematically excluded from Salon exhibitions. This rejection was due to his comparatively radical style of painting, characterized by muscular bands of pasty paint applied with a spatula, a technique he had inherited from the realist master Gustave Courbet. His rough manner matched his adoption of a provincial persona, a calculated strategy, also following the pattern of Courbet, to gain notoriety in the cosmopolitan capital. This early phase of Cézanne’s career, replete with grim portraiture and emotionally charged scenes of rape and murder, paralleled anxiety in his personal life: Bewildered in the capital, Cézanne shuttled back and forth between Aix and Paris in search of a most definitive artistic voice. In Aix the Jas de Bouffan, a large working farm on the outskirts of the city that had been purchased by Louis-Auguste in 1859 to serve as the family estate, figured as a central location for the artist’s searching experimentation of these early years. and more.
In 1869 Cézanne met Émilie Hortense Ficquet, the woman who would eventually become his wife (1886) and give birth to their only son, also named Paul, in 1872. It was at Pissarro’s instigation that Cézanne came to Auvers in 1872, along with Hortense and her young son, and began what is often called his “Impressionist” phase. Influenced by the Barbizon painters Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, and Théodore Rousseau, Cézanne had depicted landscapes in his earlier work. But it was through his close working relationship with Pissarro that Cézanne developed both his enduring interest in plein-air (outdoor) painting and a form similar to that of the Impressionists. Cézanne now placed more emphasis on close observation of nature and on the depiction of light and atmospheric effects, producing works with a lighter palette and freer brushwork which he exhibited in Paris at the Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1877. It was during the 1870s, and until 1885, that Cézanne began painting at L’Estaque, a place that has rightly been seen as the engenderer of Cézanne’s maturation as an artist. It was there, in the mid-1880s, that he painted his grand views of the Gulf of Marseilles, though he had more prosaic reasons for making this seaside town his base when he returned to Provence: l’estaque had allowed him to avoid the draft ( 1870-1871), and continued to function as a refuge from paternal interference.
From the mid-1880s until Cézanne’s first solo exhibition, organized in Paris in 1895 by his dealer Ambroise Vollard, the artist’s personal life and artistic output underwent considerable changes. In April 1886, Zola published the masterpiece (L’oeuvre), a novel whose unflattering portrait of a failed artist, based on Cézanne himself, precipitated the end of their long friendship. Later that month, Cézanne married Hortense Ficquet, and his father died in October. around 1890 cézanne began to suffer from diabetes. meanwhile, by then he had entered his full artistic maturity, adopting a characteristic style in which paint was applied in regular, hatched strokes: his so-called “constructive stroke.” intention to produce paintings that captured solid form rather than the fleeting effects depicted by the Impressionists. He represented the range of subjects in all media: landscapes around Pontoise and especially Provence, particularly his early pictures of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, as well as still lifes, portraits, and self-portraits. among his most iconic works are his paintings of card players, done in the early 1890s, and of the bibémus quarry and château noir, dated to the mid-1890s. cézanne had also begun to attract the attention of criticism during this period by paul alexis (1886-1887), joris-karl huysmans (1888), Émile bernard (1891), george lecomte (1892) and others.
among the significant events that marked cézanne’s last decade was the death of his mother in 1897, which led to the sale of the jas de bouffan in 1899. while a site was stolen from him, cézanne created another in 1902 when he had a studio built on the outlying hills of les lauves. Near his studio, Cézanne began his systematic representations of what is now recognized as his signature motif: Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the dominant landform east of Aix. It is these paintings, possibly more than any other, that show what was perhaps the aesthetic principle behind Cézanne’s signal: the structuring power of color. His last great achievement was his serial paintings of bathers, a theme he dealt with throughout his life, culminating in three large canvases executed around this time. the latter reformulates longstanding notions about the nude and the relationship of the figure to the landscape.
cézanne died at 7:00 am on October 23, 1906, at his home, 23 rue boulegon in aix.
(Biography was written by Benedict Leca, Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Department of European and French Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington.)