Why so late and so painfully?

Frederick Brown

  • 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.’

Distracting middle-class condotierri from issues of moment was the task of the artist who didn’t want to risk exclusion from the Salon, an annual bazaar organised under official auspices. When, in 1863, Louis-Napoleon gave those rejected by the Salon leave to hang their work in separate premises, the critics lost no time comparing this Salon des Refusés to Charenton, the French counterpart of Bedlam. It was unseemly of the state to conduct itself like a fairground entrepreneur who displays freaks in his booth and charges admission, Maxime du Camp declared with mock indignation. Better that ‘monstrosities’ (among them works by Manet, Pissarro, Whistler, Fantin-Latour, Jongkind and Cézanne) be quarantined lest they contaminate public space.

At the Royal Academy Guizot spoke on behalf of men who feared the socioeconomic vehicle they themselves had made and ridden. As the vehicle accelerated, with new money ageing in a generation and men of no repute becoming rich overnight, their apprehensions increased. Change, or the feeling that any trick of fortune might end their reign, induced them to celebrate stultification. During the Ancien Régime, no word could, en principe, be uttered on stage and no painting exhibited without the king’s leave. Art existed as art only insofar as it was an agreement with the judgment of his cultural arbiters. When the king was beheaded, his authority devolved onto neoclassical conventions to which, half a century later, the middle-class establishment could not have clung more tenaciously had it been a candidate for the scaffold. Academic art shielded its champions against the spectre of alienation. Did they feel threatened by the masses? They could relax in classical company. Had the shape of life become unclear and its rhythm breakneck? The more reason to idealise meticulous lines and glassy finishes that sealed time in images drawn from mythology, the Bible and the heroic age.

What detractors found offensive about Impressionist art was precisely its lack of ‘finish’, the shimmer of life it embodied. Théophile Gautier, whose notion of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ endeared him to the upper-class connoisseur, wrote, apropos of a Barbizon painter, Charles-François Daubigny: ‘It is really too bad that he … should be satisfied with an impression and should neglect details to the extent that he does. His pictures are nothing more than rough drafts left in a very unfinished state.’ Thirty years later, Monet, Pissarro and Sisley escaped him altogether. How many who shared his incomprehension also sought through art to find asylum from the horrible quotidien? To abolish detail, to leave brushstrokes, gobs of paint and bare patches on the canvas, to take pleasure in representing mundane or ephemeral things was to profane the temple.

In the temple, where eyes were fixed on the past and masters were seen as custodians of a sacred practice, there wasn’t much talk of artistic fatherhood. Fathers belonged to the realm of change and generation; and in that realm the title of ‘father of modern art’ has most often been conferred on Cézanne, the painter belatedly recognised as such by critics and curators. To Bonnard he was ‘the painter most powerfully armed in the face of nature, the strongest, the most sincere’. Matisse honoured him as ‘a sort of God of painting’. Picasso said that ‘he was like the father of us all.’

As Alex Danchev shows in his engaging and well-researched biography, Cézanne himself spent his life fighting free of a father whose approval he never ceased to crave. He was five before his father married his mother. Not unlike Balzac’s Père Grandet, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, a shrewd entrepreneur who became rich through trade and banking, was a self-made man given to scoffing at public opinion. Where Aixois notables read Le Mémorial d’Aix, a local paper that reflected their deep-dyed conservatism, Louis-Auguste professed liberal views and subscribed to L’Evénement, the paper for which Zola wrote an iconoclastic survey of the annual Salon in the 1860s (singling out for praise Manet, whose work had been turned down by the jury). Even before he acquired the Jas de Bouffan, his villa outside Aix, Louis-Auguste was not to be found with fellow Aixois in their Sunday promenade on the cours Mirabeau. That his nonconformism isolated the family served both to justify his aversion to society and to reinforce his authority in the household. He closely monitored every transaction with the outside world, regularly intercepting letters. Paranoia was the family ethos.

Paul’s sensibility did not earn high marks from his father. Its earliest manifestations were greeted with derision and he relied for emotional support almost entirely on his vivacious mother, Elisabeth. ‘A quiet and docile student, he worked hard; he had a good mind, but did not reveal any remarkable qualities,’ his sister Marie recalled (imperfectly: Paul was a gifted Latinist). ‘He was criticised for his weakness of character, probably he allowed himself to be influenced too easily.’ Far more grievous than being born illegitimate was his sense of inadequacy, which compelled him before long to make repeated and doomed overtures to the Salon jury. Submission followed by rage and then by self-doubt shaped his life; every departure from Aix ended with his coming home again, like a prisoner at the end of a rope, to collect his allowance and to lay his lack of success before Louis-Auguste. ‘Cézanne has many spells of discouragement,’ Zola observed in 1861, during Cézanne’s first spell in Paris, at the age of 22. ‘Despite the scorn he affects for glory, I see that he desires to succeed. When he does badly, he speaks of … returning to Aix and making himself a clerk in a commercial house.’ Zola also noted that Cézanne would stubbornly ignore criticism. Indeed, he built his most durable defences around his ‘faults’. His dishevelment, for example, brought frequent reprimands, but he remained unkempt; the mess a painter inevitably makes may have secretly been a compelling attraction.

That Cézanne became an artist at all, rather than the provincial lawyer he might have been had Louis-Auguste had his way, is due in part to the remarkable fact that his schoolmate at the Collège Bourbon was Emile Zola. When he moved to Paris in 1858 Zola assumed the role of spiritual animateur, exhorting Cézanne to embrace his true vocation and prevail on his father to let him study art in Paris. Himself fatherless and down at heel, Zola held fast to the belief born of their reading and confidences and exhilarating hikes in the mountainous countryside above Aix that they were destined for great things. ‘The other day I dreamed that I had written a beautiful book with your sublime illustrations,’ he wrote to Cézanne. ‘Our two names in gilt letters united on the first leaf, and in this fraternity of genius entered the chronicles of posterity.’ When they were twenty, he advised the despondent Cézanne not to envy the facile realism of his master at the Aix Academy. ‘It’s all the handiwork of a skilled craftsman – pretty, fresh, well finished. Art is more sublime than that; it transcends the folds of fabric and the pink tints of a virgin … Let us walk straightforwardly and bravely in our own path.’

Zola’s exhortations had their effect. In 1861, Paul finally left for Paris with Louis-Auguste’s grudging consent and with the intention of placating the old man by preparing for entry to the Ecole des beaux-arts at the Académie Suisse. It was only after he had spent nine solitary months in the city, made a dismal return to Aix, and ventured back to Paris that the sense of a métier began to emerge. ‘For better or worse,’ Danchev writes,

the Académie Suisse was his proving ground – proving himself to himself and to others. It was there that he met some of his closest friends: Armand Guillaumin, Antoine Guillemet, Francisco Oller, Camille Pissarro. Everyone was fascinated by his quirks and foibles: the strong southern accent, the heavy emphasis, the slang … the profanity. Nom de Dieu! Bougre de Crétin! Monet always remembered his habit of placing a black hat and a white handkerchief next to the model to help him gauge the tonal scale.

Others remembered his tantrums, when he slashed canvases and sent brushes flying.

Hand in hand with the sense of an artistic calling, as Danchev explains, was Cézanne’s association with artists scornful of the principles catechised by the Ecole des beaux-arts (to which Cézanne nonetheless applied, pro forma, for his father’s sake, but perhaps also in the spirit of Zola, who at the height of his fame repeatedly put himself up for a seat in the Académie Française, wanting at once to be elected and to advertise his pariahdom). The Salon des Refusés of 1863 served to create an official brotherhood. Indeed, Cézanne wanted it institutionalised and three years later, when the superintendent of the Beaux-arts denied the unsuccessful applicants permission for an alternative exhibition, he protested. ‘The Salon des Refusés should be re-established,’ he wrote to M. de Nieuwerkerke. ‘Even were I to find myself alone in it, it is my ardent hope that the public might at least realise that I am no more eager to be associated with the gentlemen on the jury than they are to be associated with me.’

By then he was spending more time at the Jas de Bouffan than in Paris, distancing himself – his friends were led to believe – from the influence of academies. While Zola, who needed characters to act as the scaffolding for his theories of heredity, found ample material in the metropolis as well as in his memories of Aix, Cézanne rejoiced in the unpeopled landscape of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Provençal garrigue. ‘You know, any picture done indoors, in the studio, never equals things done outdoors,’ he wrote to Zola in 1866:

In pictures of outdoor scenes, the contrast of figures to scenery is astonishing, and the landscape is magnificent. I see superb things, and I must resolve to paint only out of doors … I truly believe that all the ‘open air’ pictures of the old masters were done by tricks, for to me none of them has the true and, above all, original light nature alone can give.

His ambition to ‘paint a living Poussin in the open air’ had yet to be formulated.

Cézanne paid dearly for the magnificent expanses on which he practised his idiosyncratic view of nature and painting. Danchev compares the frown he saw on his father’s face to the blame that Kafka always read in his own father’s face, and quotes from Kafka’s long letter to Hermann. Cézanne was not so forthright. He wrote to Pissarro on 23 October 1866: ‘My dear friend, Here I am in the bosom of my family, the rottenest creatures in the world, the members of it, boring beyond measure. But let’s not go into that.’ Matters grew worse when Cézanne, whose fear of naked women extended to models, and whose early paintings picture sex as predatory, nevertheless acquired a mistress called Hortense Fiquet and fathered a son. This was initially concealed from Louis-Auguste, who caught wind of the relationship even so and tried in vain to starve a confession out of his son by halving his allowance. Sixteen years would pass before Hortense Fiquet became Madame Cézanne. Unable either to tie himself down or to cut himself loose, Paul kept his mistress in purdah while surviving on an allowance from his father, whose taunts were preferable to independence. The liaison endured until 1886, when, at his mother’s behest, he married Hortense (though with no intention of installing her at the Jas de Bouffan). A witness at the ceremony was his 14-year-old child, also named Paul. Bastard father ended up legitimising bastard son, as his father had legitimised him. Later that year Louis-Auguste died, leaving Cézanne a fortune.

This was a pivotal year in yet another respect, for it marked the trailing off of his friendship with Zola. During the lean 1870s, much of which Cézanne spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, near Pissarro, engaging in what Danchev calls ‘a campaign of experimentation and self-examination, as satisfying an endeavour as anything he had ever undertaken as an artist’, Cézanne had relied on regular handouts from Zola. The bond remained strong, despite Mme Zola’s feeling that impromptu visits from the bearded, dishevelled Cézanne soiled her feathers, but in the spring of 1886 Zola published L’Oeuvre, a novel in which he dramatises ‘the struggle of an incomplete genius with nature’, the genius being a painter called Claude Lantier. ‘How an art work grows, how it succeeds or fails is what I wish to study … I shall recount my entire youth, I shall populate it with my friends, I shall include myself.’ The generally accepted view is that Cézanne saw himself as the model for Lantier and took umbrage.

Danchev disagrees, basing his argument, in part, on the polite letter Cézanne wrote to Zola after receiving a copy of the novel. ‘I just received L’Oeuvre … I thank the author of the Rougon-Macquart for this kind token of remembrance, and ask him to allow me to shake his hand thinking of years gone by. Tout à toi, with the feeling of time passing, Paul Cézanne.’ Cézanne, Danchev writes, was quite capable of losing his temper over slights and often did. In 1895, for example, he wrote to Francisco Oller: ‘The officious tone you have adopted toward me of late and the rather offhand manner you permitted yourself to use towards me on departure are not calculated to please me. I have determined not to receive you in my father’s house.’ He was also capable of hiding his hurt: he never sent Louis-Auguste anything resembling the letter Kafka wrote to his father. Zola had been to him as much a surrogate father as a friend, urging him to abandon the law for art, loving him even when he failed to understand his work, hanging Cézannes in his house out of loyalty, helping generously when called on. How could he not know that Zola’s settled opinion was that he was an ‘abortive genius’, especially as the phrase and paraphrases of it were echoed by camp followers? (When a frustrated Cézanne suddenly packed up and left Paris after his first stay in the capital, Zola wrote to Baptiste Baille: ‘Paul may have the genius of a great painter, he’ll never have the genius to become one. The slightest obstacle sends him into despair.’) One mutual friend wrote to Zola in 1891, after visiting Cézanne in Aix: ‘He is living out at Jas de Bouffan with his mother … It’s one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen, the sight of this fine fellow still preserving his childish naiveties, forgetting the disappointments of his struggle and, resigned and suffering, doggedly continuing to pursue a work he cannot manage to bring into being.’ When Zola himself wrote a review of the annual Salon for the Figaro in 1895, reminiscing about the good fight he had fought thirty years earlier on behalf of Manet, he referred to Cézanne as his brother: ‘I had grown up almost in the same crib as … Paul Cézanne, in whose work critics have finally got around to discovering elements of genius in a great abortive painter.’

They never corresponded again after 1886. Zola kept track of Cézanne through friends who visited Aix; Cézanne is said to have wept inconsolably on hearing of Zola’s death in 1902. But another wedge had meanwhile been driven between them by the Dreyfus Affair, which did the same to friends throughout France. While J’Accuse, Zola’s indictment of the military conspirators who framed Dreyfus, became the rallying cry of the Dreyfusard movement, ‘Cézanne,’ Danchev writes, ‘had nothing to say about the affaire, which he observed as from a distance.’ He then quotes Cézanne saying to a young painter that Dreyfus’s champions had pulled the wool over Zola’s eyes (‘On lui a monté un bateau’) and dismisses as simplistic the notion that Cézanne’s fondness for the virulently anti-semitic cartoons of Jean Forain argued sympathy for Forain’s politics. ‘Not all anti-Dreyfusards were dolts or bigots. Valéry was anti-Dreyfusard. So was Cézanne.’ But a fixed belief in Dreyfus’s guilt, even when it was not born of stupidity or bigotry (and the young Paul Valéry, who told a friend that he didn’t like Jews – ‘They don’t have art. They pillage everything’ – may qualify as a bigot), was bound up with personal experience and certainly expressed loyalty or hostility to established institutions. Valéry, who worked in the Artillery Munitions Bureau of the army during the affair, held the military in higher esteem than the Republic, both then and decades later, when he panegyrised his fellow academician Marshal Pétain. Cézanne, after his father’s death, had turned for emotional support to the Church, which, with some notable exceptions, stoked the fires of anti-Dreyfusism, condemning Jews as the heirs of Judas – Mauriac’s family in Bordeaux taught him to call his chamberpot ‘Zola’. The bourgeois and aristocratic parishioners of Aix, where Zola, who vowed to purge the sky of gods, was widely detested even before the affair, undoubtedly had their own scatological names for him.

Danchev’s reticence about Cézanne’s religious observance seems to be of a piece with the scant attention he pays to signs of Cézanne’s opposition to the Dreyfusard intelligentsia. To be sure, Cézanne was rather embarrassed about going to church, as if in doing so he were inviting posthumous taunts from Louis-Auguste. He lived at the Jas de Bouffan with his mother and unmarried sister Marie, separately from his own family, who lived in Aix. He called the villa ‘my father’s house’ and described himself as a weak man unable to manage without the support of a patriarchal institution: ‘As I’m a weak character, I lean on my sister Marie, who leans on her confessor, who leans on Rome.’ Cézanne ‘was not so much anxious as restless, temperamentally and intellectually’, Danchev writes, resisting the idea that Cézanne’s phobias, doubts, and depressions had roots in his childhood: ‘The eccentricity has been overdone … Whatever the gossips might say, he was neither demented nor depressed. The salient thing about his condition was that he had purpose – moral purpose – he was inquiet de vérité, in Geffroy’s phrase: hot for truth.’


With his mother’s death in 1897 came expulsion from the Jas de Bouffan, which had been bequeathed indivisibly to him and his two sisters, one of whom, the married one, Rose, wanted it sold. Paul was devastated, as much by the burning of furniture that reminded him of his father at work or asleep (a desk, an armchair) as by the loss of his cradle. According to a neighbour, Cyril Rougier, he proceeded, in an act of pious self-immolation (but also fearful of his venal brother-in-law putting them on the market for a pittance) to burn a large number of his own early canvases, painted with the knife. He then took an apartment in Aix, near the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, very close to his father’s bank.

In 1901, he bought land on a hill north of town, overlooking the valley that separated him from Mont Sainte-Victoire, and built a studio there. He lived reclusively. Twenty years earlier, when J.K. Huysmans published L’Art moderne, Pissarro had chided him for not even mentioning Cézanne. ‘How come you don’t say a word about Cézanne, whom all of us painters regard as one of the most astonishing and curious temperaments of our age and who has had a very great influence on modern art?’ To younger painters, who may have seen Cézannes hanging in the back room of Père Tanguy’s art supply store without realising that he was still alive, he remained enigmatic. Only after the dealer Ambroise Vollard took his work in hand and organised a one-man show in 1895 did his reputation begin to grow. People made pilgrimages to his studio, and he earned lots of money but, like his father, reckoned up every centime he spent on himself. Ill with diabetes, he worked doggedly even so. ‘The new studio was a tonic,’ Danchev writes. In January 1903, Vollard received a letter, at once grandiose, churlish and self-deprecatory:

I can glimpse the Promised Land. Will I be like the greater leader of the Hebrews, or will I be able to enter it? … I had to abandon your flowers, with which I am not at all pleased. I have a large studio in the country, I work there. I am more comfortable there than in town. I’ve made some progress. Why so late and so painfully? Is Art in fact a priesthood which demands the pure who belong to it wholly? I regret the distance separating us, for more than once I would have had recourse to you for a moral support. I live alone, the ***s and the ***s are unspeakable, they’re the intellectual clique. Good God, the whole lot of them! … Thank you for thinking of me.

Three years later, caught in a rainstorm while painting sur le motif, the 67-year-old Cézanne contracted pneumonia and died twenty years to the day after his father.