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This is Part I of a two part story continued here: Cezanne: Part 2, Bridge Between Centuries
Even as a young painter, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) stood apart. His subject matter and style were highly unusual for the mid-19th century. His earliest works were characterized by heavy figures set in dark landscapes. He worked with knives, saturating the canvas with paint. The Murder, 1868, with its stormy black sky masking the painting’s central focus, was more than a mere departure from the norm. It was a giant leap, and one that neither public nor critic nor colleague initially admired.
By the end of his life, Cézanne had separated himself physically as well, even from his wife and his lifelong friend, Émile Zola. Hundreds of kilometers from Paris, on a hill halfway between his home in Aix-en-Provence and his favorite viewpoint of the Mount Saint-Victoire, Cézanne built the perfect artist’s atelier. Here, he would spend every day of the last four years of his life, transforming forever the way we experience visual expression. Here, Cézanne would consolidate the previous four decades of his development as a painter to pioneer a new art form, inventing cubism 10 years before the style had a name and constructing the bridge over which a new generation of artists would pass into a new century.
One thing Cézanne was not was a bohemian. His father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, a felt hat merchant, earned enough money making caps for the French army to open Aix’s first bank. Though he hoped his only son would go into law, sending an already art-struck Paul to the University of Aix for a time, Louis-Auguste did eventually accept Paul’s passion (though not without a tussle) and provided him an allowance and an inheritance that would shelter the artist from financial worries forever.
It was with his inheritance that Paul built his atelier in 1901-02: a veritable cathedral to the artistic expression he sought. The lofty ceiling allowed him to erect a tall ladder from which he gained the multiple perspectives of his subjects that eventually found their way into his paintings. A unique color gray capable of diffusing shadow, which took Cézanne five months to perfect, covered the studio walls. Looking downhill, toward the south, two tall narrow windows were hung with louvered shutters that opened from the inside, allowing the artist to regulate the intensity of afternoon light. While on the north side, a wall made almost entirely of glass allowed for optimum light all day long.
Well before finding his creative paradise, however, Cézanne tried to live the painter’s life in Paris. From 1861-70, while in his 20s, he joined his best friend, Zola, in the French capital. There, the young artist hobnobbed with the painters and writers of his day. It was an exciting time for the arts, one of tremendous change. Members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts called the newest visual works “revolutionary”—and they did not mean it as compliment. Indeed, the Academy refused more than 3,000 paintings for their annual Salon of 1863, prompting then French Emperor Napoleon III to create, by decree, the Salon des Refusées.
The “refused” included, in addition to Cézanne, such artists as Monet, Manet, Degas and the American James McNeil Whistler. The public, used to a painterly tradition that featured historical or mythical scenes rendered realistically in smooth strokes, largely denigrated the work of the “refused” as laughable.
However, even bad press can sometimes be good: the attention received by the “refused” in 1863 served to legitimate the emergence of “avant-garde” painting. Subsequent Salon des Refusées followed, though not with government support, and the official Salon slowly fell into decline as interest shifted to the new art form being forged by Cézanne and his peers: Impressionism.
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