IN a letter dated a year or so before his death Cézanne wrote: “I am too old; I have not realized; I shall not realize now. I remain the primitive of the way which I have discovered.” What the way was is summarized by his artist-friend, Émile Bernard, as “a bridge, thrown across conventional routine, by which impressionism may return to the Louvre and to the life profound.”
Cézanne was born at Aix in Provence in 1839. Among his college friends was Zola with whom he shared a taste for literature and entered into rivalry in prose and poetic compositions. It was not until he visited Paris and was introduced by Zola to Courbet and Manet that his thoughts turned to painting. Soon, in favor of the latter, he renounced all other interests and settled down to that concentrated and patient study of nature and art which dominated the remainder of his life.
He passed through a period of absorbing the influence of others; by turns Delacroix, Daumier, Courbet and finally Manet, among whose followers he figured for a time conspicuously. Then he grew dissatisfied with impressionism and retired to Aix to prosecute his studies in seclusion. He ceased to exhibit and Paris had forgotten his existence, when in 1899 a number of his pictures appeared in the sale of his friend, M. Choquet’s, collection. From this event dated his present reputation and the influence which he has exerted on Matisse and the still younger painters, who call him reverently, the Sage. He died at Aix in 1905.
Cézanne’s dissent from impressionism grew out of what he believed to be its two deficiencies. One anticipated the later development of neo-impressionism, in so far as the latter has tried to substitute scientific certainty for “instinct” and “inspiration.” The other was a reaction from the flat arabesques of impressionism to a more constructive kind of composition; which should replace the fugitive effects with those of bulk and permanence. Impressionism was too much at the mercy of temperament, too preoccupied with the merely passing show. Hence its manifest inferiority to the great art of the past.
On the other hand the latter ceased to be a living expression with the passing of the life to which it had responded and the academic, classicalized attempt to perpetuate it artifically has resulted in “conventional routine.” It was over this routine that Cézanne set himself to build a bridge, which should unite the throbbing life of to-day with the noble art of the past, and let some of the profound life of Classic art pass across into the art of the present.
No one will dispute the grandeur of the aim or the need of achieving it, if modern painting is ever to take rank not only with the great art of the past but also with the great works of the present in other departments of civilization.
Cézanne recognized that modern painting in its effort to recover greatness was debarred for the most part from one source of Italian grandeur. It could no longer ally itself to the sumptuousness of that life and reinforce itself with the superb illustration of Biblical and mythological lore. It was compelled to be the expression of a life whose main characteristic is a keen consciousness of actualities. The painter of today cannot soar into the clouds; he must occupy himself with the actual perceptions of things as they are. He can, however, save himself from banality by relying upon his sensations, aroused by the perceptions, and by giving to them a concrete form. This, in fact, was what impressionism had done.
How was it possible to alleviate the oppression of concreteness and increase the suggestion of the abstract sensations; to reduce the appeal to the eye and magnify the claim on the imagination?
Cézanne attacked the problem intellectually; taking account of the psychology of perceptions and analyzing them with the untiring scrutiny of the scientist. He reasoned, for example, that to move the spectator deeply the artist must have recourse to depth. In place of the flat arabesques of the impressionists he revived the concavities of composition. Further, he rejected the elements of form in flat geometrical de-signs, the triangle, rectangle and circle, in favor of the rounded forms, the cone, cylinder and sphere. He also adopted as an axiom that all forms in nature create a sensation of revolving upon themselves and around a point in space.
In his analytical experiments with color Cézanne ran the gamut from dark to light. He early broke away from the impressionist’s slavish adherence to the perceptions of color. It was the sensations excited by the perceptions that he aimed to render. Thus, in his early still-life pictures he would make his shadows in some cases as black as ink; and in his later figure-subjects never hesitate to throw up the roundness of a form by a dark line, that to the out-and-out impressionist is a horrible violation of nature’s truth. And yet the amazing thing is that the net result in Cézanne impresses us by its fidelity to nature.
One may see a number of his figure-subjects in the collection of M. Pellerin and at the gallery of M. Vollard, a dealer whose rare instinct anticipated the genuine recognition of Cezanne’s artistic significance. A few models have served him for his experiments, and they are placed against a slaty-gray background in clothes that chiefly repeat black, gray and dull blue. These and the flesh tints make up the color schemes. But, when you come to examine the quality of these hues, you find them threaded through and through with variety of hue and tone. His grays, for example, are a blend of rose and blue, often interspersed with yellow; a bloom of soft deep coloring, velvety in texture. The flesh tints are correspondingly complex, resulting in a texture as firm, colorful and luscious as fruit. Yet the faces are impassive and the figures uncouth, like roughly hewn chunks of form. The expression is in the eyes and hands which echo each other with an extraordinary unity of feeling that yet always allows predominance of accent to the head.
Allusion has been made to Cézanne’s pictures of still life which in beauty of color and grandeur of feeling have probably never been surpassed. His landscapes, while commandingly natural, arouse sensations profoundly abstract. His groups of nudes in the open air, many of which suggest that he was acquainted with El Greco’s art, sacrifice truth of form to the greater significance of movement. Viewed abstractly as symbols, the compositions are highly impressive, their expression mysteriously entrancing.
In later work the influence of the southern sunshine is apparent. The positiveness of the colors becomes resolved in the circumambience of light ; until in his water colors, the unpremeditated analysis of a temporary perception, the merest washes, almost colorless, suggest the sensation of constructed planes of level land and mountains. Anything more reasonably interpretative and at the same time more abstract in sensation can scarcely be imagined. His watercolors probably come nearest to “realization” of all his work.
But that Cézanne, as he admitted, never fully realized himself is in the long story of French painting of little moment, when compared with his actual achievement and its influence upon future progress. For his work involves a feeling of magnitude and profound significance such as no other modern painter has attained.
It is these qualities that have impressed the younger generation and may yet enable it to construct solidly and for long time a “bridge across conventional routine, by which impressionism (and neo-impressionism also) may return to the Louvre and the life profound.” Paul Cezanne @ Web MuseumPaul Cezanne (1839-1906)Modern Painting – The Impressionists And Their AlliesPaul CezanneImpressionism