by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
“Talking about art is almost always useless,” Paul Cézanne told an interviewer near the end of his life.
Either you see a picture immediately or you never see it at all. Explanations don’t help a bit. What good does it do to comment on it? All those things are imperfect, imprecise things. We talk as we do because it’s amusing, like drinking a good bottle of wine.
In spring of 1859, Paul Cézanne fell in love for the first time. Unfortunately the woman in question, whose name was Justine, was already involved with a classmate. He wrote, “What fantasies I built, as mad as can be, but you see it’s like this: I said to myself if she didn’t despise me we should go to Paris together, there I should become an artist, we should be happy.” She never took notice of him.
To make himself forget the girl, he spent all his time at the Free School of Drawing. While there, you were forbidden to ever go to the bathroom. Cézanne disdained the nude models, and at first he shied away from depicting the human form at all. He was far from the best of the group.
That honor went to a painter named Jean-Baptiste Chaillan, who was also fond of fucking the nude models. “The love of art veils any over-excitement at all the nudity,” Paul told his friend Émile Zola. Instead of finishing law school, Cézanne went to Paris. Zola was ecstatic to have his friend in town. With only a modest allowance from his father supplementing this venture, Cézanne ate cheap meals and only splurged on cigarettes.
Chaillon had made a similar journey to the big city. Much to Paul’s chagrin, Chaillon painting from six to eleven and spent the rest of the day lazing about the Louvre and talking to girls. Cézanne was not much more productive, to Zola’s disappointment. “Convincing Cézanne of something is like persuading the towers of Notre Dame to execute a quadrille,” he complained.
“Don’t think I’m becoming a Parisian,” Cézanne said by way of a response. He applied to art school twice, but was not accepted either time. He was terrible with women, and found all new relationship risky and threatening at their core. It was the work of Édouard Manet which finally gave him a model for his own varied artistic inclinations.
“It’s because I can’t capture my sensation at the first go,” he said, “so I lay in some color, I lay it in as I can. But when I start I always try to paint with a thick impasto like Manet, giving form with the brush.” Manet also took note of Cézanne’s early work. He was just seven years older than his admirer, but it took over a year before Cezanne was back to not being impressed by anyone. (Zola’s critique of the artist helped in penetrating Cézanne’s heavenly view of Manet.)
Thereafter Cézanne had finished with idol worship; he was not content to sit in admiration of any except himself. Sometimes Cézanne when painting the countryside would leave his canvas there “to be reclaimed by the natural environment,” explained Renoir. “I wanted to copy nature,” Cézanne explained, “I couldn’t. I searched, turned, looked at it from every direction, but in vain. It’s invincible, from all sides.”
By 1866 he had developed this persona completely. “Paul looks superb this year,” noted a friend, “with hair thin on top and extremely long, and his revolutionary beard.”
The paintings Cézanne managed in the following years found their way into the collections of the biggest names in art. According to Paul’s biographer Alex Danchev, Gauguin owned seven canvases, Degas had another seven, while Monet was in possession of fourteen Cézannes, including three that hung in his bedroom. Renoir exchanged paintings with Cézanne frequently, and his wife even cooked by Paul’s recipes.
Where Renoir and Cézanne eventually parted ways was in their view of Jews. Renoir was aghast at Cézanne’s association with the Jewish painter Pissarro. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair both Renoir and Degas refused to talk to Camille Pissarro or any Jew, while Monet, Gauguin and Zola supported their friend. This political conflict turned into an aesthetic one, dividing a close community. Cezanne found himself in the middle – for the most part, he avoided the politics. But he never abandoned his mentor and comrade Pissarro.
It was Pissarro who taught Cézanne that painting was more a profession than a dalliance, and that a great deal of work had to go into it. Pissarro’s background was far from the privileged European life Cézanne was used to: he was the son of a nephew who married in his aunt in the Virgin Islands. Pissarro’s politics were left of left, and he had no use for the institutions of the art world. “Pissarro wasn’t wrong,” Cezanne later wrote, “he went a bit far, however, when he said we should burn the necropolises of art.”
The Parisian world was shattered when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Paul had no intention of fighting in the conflict. Instead he had intercouse with a nineteen year old named Marie-Hortense, and she gave him a son, which they also named Paul. He took years before telling his parents about this state of affairs, and they found out first from other sources.
What Marie-Hortense liked most about Paul was his money. “My wife only likes Switzerland and lemonade,” he explained. He must have been drawn to her dirty blonde hair, which soon went completely dark. Cézanne rented a small house where Marie-Hortense was both his maid and lover. Using Marie-Hortense as his model meant not only was he flattering her form, but Cézanne could have hours of silence to himself. She spent her free time reading tawdry romances and he dashed off to Provence whenever he grew tired of her.
He did paint his new wife quite a bit, and all indications are that their relationship suited him just fine. After his death, she sold off plenty of his work to raise funds. There were so many paintings when so few would have sufficed. She never had a particularly high opinion of her husband’s oeuvre.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording.