The artist, Paul Cézanne, who was born in Aix-en-Provence, in 1839, lived there for a great part of his life and died there in 1906. He came to be known as the Primitive of the Moderns. This curious, conservative, stubborn bourgeois from the provinces preferred antiquated oil lamps to the brilliant electric lights in the Paris streets. His attitude toward all social development was completely reactionary and he repudiated "The Kingdom of Engineers."
However, so completely did he dominate the imagination of early 20th-century Bohemian artists, that they almost enshrined him as a god. Examining large numbers of Cézanne's canvases, the uninitiated is liable to ask at first what all the tumult was about, for they seem singularly unintelligible beside the works of the impressionists. They lack the clean-cut, dynamic composition of the later futurists. Cézanne's importance lies in the fact that he was a transitional figure, a pioneer and experimenter.
To the psychologist, much of Cézanne's attitude toward life appears to have resulted from a certain obstinacy coupled with revolt against a banker father determined to make a lawyer of him. His slowness in painting was proverbial, his reliance upon a few models, such as the inert mass of a mountain, some fruit, a tablecloth, or now and then a human being willing to sit for a hundred hours or more, indicates a man singularly lacking in literary creative imagination. Living alone in the country, Cézanne employed himself with the simple problem of trying to paint a movement from realistic, rounded objects to flat, decorative areas, in terms of color, excluding as far as possible correct linear perspective and accurate, realistic modeling in light and shade.
Cézanne repeated, without knowing anything about it, the famous sentence of the Egyptian artist who wrote, "all art consists of a combination of cones, squares and cubes." He never attempted to construct literally a plastic vision of the world in terms of cones, squares, and cubes, leaving that for his followers.
Either in his early training Cézanne never learned to draw consistently in correct linear perspective or, in an attitude of protest, he accepted definitely the problem of pattern and design as being more worthy of his attention. He could and did draw casts in the Louvre in correct chiaroscuro, and, under the rigorous guild training of the late Renaissance, he probably would have been a painter very much like Rubens, if he can be judged by the excellence of his earliest figure studies. He seems to have been without a sense of appropriateness or a desire for decorative unity over large areas. His murals painted on canvas or directly on the plaster walls of his father's house, Jas de Bouffan, between 1862 and 1869, definitely indicate this.
Panels showing the seasons, symbolized by four women, were done in the old academic manner and playfully signed "Ingres." On one wall a canvas with a landscape was done in the style of the painter Lancret, an older academician, whose works look like those of Watteau. Still a third style, that of Sebastiano del Piombo, dominates another panel. Finally, in the center of all is the rough, almost brutal, geometric portrait of Cézanne's father in that style which we know as Cézanne's own, opposite a picture of the dwarf, Achille Empereur. The last was painted under the influence of the Romantic, Delacroix. Had this mélange come from a sophisticated modern after 1900, we should call it satire, but for Cézanne it was an honest attempt to find himself through copying the style of a number of older masters and then registering his "protest" in another style so novel, so primitive, that he could call it his very own.
The still life in the Lillie P. Bliss Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, indicates even in black and white the innovation for which Cézanne has become famous. The total effect is more geometric and abstract than realistic. In order to get a better area of design in the upper right part of the picture, the artist modified his perspective in several places, particularly in the drawing of the ellipses at the top of the bowl and the decanter. He modeled the fruit with brilliant colors rather than with light and shade, often painting an apple green in shadow, yellow-green where the shadow emerges into the light, and yellow in the high light.
Sometimes an orange is red in the shadow, yellow-red on the turn, and yellow in the high light. Cast shadows are usually made purple, blue, or green, often brown, rarely black or gray. Cézanne nullifies the elementary laws of the psychology of color, placing an apple predominantly blue or green in front of another apple in brilliant red. A fold of drapery that retreats from the eye in linear perspective will be colored blue at the front and yellow white at the back. One concludes either that Cézanne was not trying to model in color, or else that he fumbled a great deal.
He himself tells us that he did not wish to paint in flat decorative areas, and he definitely expressed his dislike for Byzantine art. So his pictures display both roundness and flatness, an indeterminate quality like a Celtic interweave, a discontinuous arabesque of form, line, and flat color areas which express clearly the fluctuating state of mind of the amateur who would like to become a painter, whose paintings hardly ever sold, and whose obstinacy kept him at his chosen task until he had created a few consistent panels in a new style.
When this integrity of his character at last became known, toward the close of his life, Cézanne's old friends -- men like Zola -- had become wealthy and passed on. But the revolutionary younger generation who surpassed his experiments praised him as their leader, and the art dealers who had bought up his countless studies for little or nothing, profiting by the just acclaim of his few fine works, sold many aesthetically worthless trials for exorbitant prices to the nouveaux riches who wished to be considered cultured.