Cézanne & Zola: Friends from Aix-en-Provence

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We often associate Aix-en-Provence with the celebrated painter, Paul Cézanne, possibly because he painted so often at Vauvenargues close by. But, another notable artist came from the same place. The great writer, Emile Zola, was not only from Aix, but went to school with Cézanne and at 13, they even became close friends. Today, part of Cézanne’s work is housed in Aix in the Granet Museum, a site which was on Cézanne and Zola’s school route. In a recent article, I mentioned that this museum was carrying a retrospective of Cézanne’s work as well as Picasso’s. It would be interesting if the two artists were here to see Aix today. Unfortunately, considering their fall-out which brought about the end to their friendship, it seems unlikely that this would’ve happened. As students, the two were fast friends even though Zola was a difficult boy in many ways. He was constantly daydreaming, stubborn and on the wild side and generally, was the type children didn’t take to easily. Still, Cézanne couldn’t help liking him, and when Zola moved to Paris, Cézanne followed. But the artist’s work was not appreciated and the future looked dim. There were other artists in Cézanne’s circle like Monet who painted a portrait of Zola and Pissarro, who suggested to Cézanne that he reduce the number of colors he used: one of the most important and best pieces of advice he received. Still, from 1864 to 1869, Cézanne was somewhat of a loner: remaining outside of the circle as his work was consistently rejected. He them became embittered over Zola’s seeming slight in L’Oeuvre, in which he wrote about a failed painter who was socially isolated and a Bohemian, and explained that the painter in question was impeded by invisible shackles in his effort to paint. Noticing the similarities between himself and the protagonist, Cézanne was understandably disappointed at Zola’s apparent betrayal. Zola’s work seemed to expose Cézanne’s dark side: his recklessness and distrust of women and his attempts to conceal his temerity behind an exterior bluster. The novel was a deep blow to the sensitive Cézanne and he never forgave Zola for writing it. He wrote a terse letter to Zola, congratulating him on his publication and it was the last time Cézanne wrote to his friend, and furthermore, it marked the end of their friendship. Cézanne went on to find his way and was uniquely successful, going on to marry, have a son and become the painter that most novices envied. Picasso even called him “our father”; “all things,” he said, “started with Cézanne.” It’s interesting and important to remember, though, that Cézanne, unlike Zola, was alienated by his own family, the critics (until 1895) and some friends, who found his behavior odd.   Like Cézanne, Zola went on to become a household name through his outpouring of literature and his newspaper articles. It was Zola who wrote the famous “J’Accuse,” in which he attacked the army (and the clergy) during the war of words and the taking of sides for their role during the Dreyfus Affair, a case involving a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of selling secrets to the Germans. In his public letter that started with the words, “J’Accuse” (I Accuse), he cited names and pointed out how Dreyfus was a scapegoat in 1894 because he was a Jew. He dared the powers-that-be to arrest him and, in fact, his letter ended with the powerful words,”…I am waiting”. It was a fierce denunciation of the French General Staff that was published by Georges Clemenceau, later to become head of state, in his newspaper, “L’Aurore”. In 1899, Dreyfus was found guilty, but was eventually retried, pardoned and returned to the army with a promotion, and many emphasize Zola’s key role in his exoneration. Zola, however, faced a libel trial and instead of going to jail, he fled to England, then returned to France but died soon after of carbon monoxide poisoning at 62. Years later, his body was moved to the Panthéon, among other great French men and women. Cézanne, by contrast, was eventually successful but for the most part he was still an “outsider”; his studio (which still stands today for the public to see), for example, was built on the outskirts of Aix-En-Provence. When built, it was in a lonely, solitary place near an abandoned quarry. Even his many paintings of Mont St. Victoire have a distant, secluded and lonely aura about them. But his success is now obvious; he broke new ground and led the way despite being an outsider. Even though he died in 1906, Cézanne remains one of the most celebrated French painters, and today, Cézanne is a household name. Despite their wrecked friendship and differing paths, both Zola and Cézanne have come to represent Aix-en-Provence, and furthermore, are both seen as innovators and patriots of a proud France.
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