Why so late and so painfully?
- Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev
Profile, 488 pp, £30.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84668 165 3
In 1857, when Cézanne was 18, the government lawyer prosecuting Madame Bovary as an affront to public decency declared that the novel was ‘a painting admirable from the point of view of talent but execrable from that of morality … Monsieur Flaubert embellishes his paintings with all the resources of art but without any of its caution; there is in his work no gauze, no veils – it shows nature in the raw.’ Those who bowed to convention could expect to be rewarded. If an artist aspired to the Prix de Rome (or even if he didn’t) he should spend long hours copying paintings in the Louvre, whose dimly-lit galleries were obstacle courses where young men sat three-deep at wooden easels. Like the trophy wife, the well-bred artist served a purpose no less significant for being largely decorative. In an address to the Royal Academy in 1840, François Guizot noted that ‘the statues of great men have come to populate public squares,’ as though they represented the oligarchy of a stable civilisation. ‘It is a happy thing in the era and present state of modern societies,’ he added. ‘What would you do, what would any of us do with these hordes incessantly raising themselves to the level of civilisation, of influence, of freedom, if they were so consumed by thirst for material wellbeing and by political passions as to have nothing in mind but thoughts of enriching themselves and fighting for their rights? They need other interests, other sentiments, other pleasures.’