“When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”
On a rain-soaked July afternoon in 1939, a sleek Talbot-Lago cabriolet roared towards Paris on the Route Verte. Unexpectedly, the black car skidded on a patch of slippery road, rolled over twice, then sat silently in a mangled mass on the roadside.
Intertwined with the car’s wreckage were the bodies of the chauffeur and the car’s owner and sole passenger, Ambroise Vollard, who was apparently killed by a blow to the back of the neck from a small bronze statue during the crash. News of the death of the 73-year-old art dealer shook up the art world.
“Are you aware of the enormity of [Vollard’s] estate? Discoveries everywhere, valuable things, never sold nor noted, discoveries under piles of canvases, priceless, surpassing all calculation…”- Jacques Emile Blanche
Vollard left behind a fortune that could rival any other in Europe, and the wealth and reputation he had amassed by taking financial risks on undervalued and underappreciated artists was due, in no small part, to the mastery of a single, enigmatic painter.
Four decades before that tragic car crash, in November 1895, a 56-year-old painter named Paul Cézanne held his first solo exhibition. It was a young Ambroise Vollard, shrewd and visionary, who rescued Cezanne from obscurity. Said Vollard:
“[A]n innovator like Cézanne was considered a madman or an impostor, and even the avant-garde regarded him with contempt. On the spot, I managed to buy 150 canvases from him, almost his entire output. I raised a great deal of money – my entire fortune went into it. And I anxiously wondered whether my audacity might not turn out to be the ruin of me. I didn’t even have enough money left over to frame the canvases decently.” -Ambroise Vollard
Over the ensuing years, Vollard would come to acquire a total of 628 of Cézannes works, releasing them into the marketplace at a slow and calculated pace. Because of this, Cézanne likely became the first artist of the modern era made into a postmortem commercial success by an art dealer.
In his memoir, Recollections of a Picture Dealer,Vollard recalls the mind-numbing process of sitting for a Cézanne portrait:
“In his studio I was required to seat myself on a stool placed on a ramshackle platform supported by four pegs.
“Seeing my distrust of the solidity of all this contraption ‘I arranged all this myself,’ said Cézanne with an engaging smile. ‘Nothing will happen if you keep your balance. And after all, sitting means being still.’
“But hardly was I settled on my pedestal when sleep overtook me. My head sank on to my shoulder. The equilibrium was shattered: platform, chair and myself were all on the floor.
“Cézanne rushed forward:
‘You wretch! You have upset the pose! You should sit like an apple. Whoever saw an apple fidgeting?’
“Motionless as that fruit may be, Cézanne was sometimes obliged to leave a study of apples unfinished. They had rotted.”
“A Cézanne portrait is more a thereness than a likeness”, writes Alex Danchev in his beautiful volume Cezanne: A Life (public library). For Cézanne didn’t just paint people, scenes or objects – he reworked the essences of those things in his mind and put to canvas what he saw as their true nature.
“Every time I’m at the easel I’m a different man, and always Cézanne”.
According to Danchev, Cézanne liked to refer to himself as “a painter by inclination”. Whether this was a statement about his natural bent towards the act of painting or a sarcastic wink towards those who criticized the slanted nature of his imagery, no one really knew for sure. As it is with many folks of diffuse intellect, it was sometimes hard for people who interacted with Cézanne to know if he was speaking to them with intentions of seriousness, joviality or irony.
“Coming to terms with Cezanne was not easy. The work itself gave ample grounds for offense. On first acquaintance, it ranged from the inexplicable to the intolerable. What is more, it was unfinished, and apparently unfinishable. Cezanne skirted the bounds of the traditional proprieties. He was in many ways a profoundly civilized creature, but he found the forms and trappings of civilization irksome. The feeling was returned in kind. All his days he was characterized as a kind of barbarian. He lived on the margins, beyond the pale…” -Alex Danchev
But the ‘real’ Cezanne was less pathological and strange and more well-rounded, calculated and complex. His father, a wealthy banker who wanted his son to become a lawyer, set his only son on a path through rigorous education at some of the best schools. In short order, Cezanne became fluent in Greek and Latin, was well-read in classical and contemporary European literature and developed a deep fondness for poetry.
Cézanne’s education would no doubt play a large part in the crafting of his external persona as a man who was a “compelling mixture of pride and humility”, a perplexing mashup of haughtiness and reserve. Cézanne created an external Cezanne; a character that he would grow to inhabit.
When his father finally relented to Cézanne’s aspirations to pursue art instead of law, an allowance was provided that would allow Cézanne to create his art without the burden of having to sell it in order to eat.
“The path he trod to painting was a tortuous one. As a professional artist, he was remarkably unsuccessful… He was thirty-five before he sold a single painting to anyone other than friends and supporters…”
“…His peers were his earliest collectors. Monet owned fourteen Cézannes. Three of them hung in his bedroom. Pissarro owned twenty-one. Gauguin used to take one of his favorite Cézannes to a nearby restaurant and hold forth on its amazing qualities. They all tried to penetrate his secrets. “How does he do it?” asked Renoir. “He has only to put two strokes of color on the canvas and it’s already something.”
“ [Cezanne] was continually at war with an indifferent world and a domineering father who declared him, aged forty-seven, sans profession. Late in life, after his first one-man show, in 1895, at the age of fifty-six, things began to change. Awestruck young artists would make their way to Aix, as if on a pilgrimage, to seek him out and hear him speak…”
And was this last decade of his life that was the most amazing – shunning Paris and his artistic contemporaries, he cloistered himself in and around Aix-en-Provence; walking the countryside, climbing the hills, experiencing God’s creation in the raw and putting it all to canvas. While the opacity of Cézanne’s life is fogged by intervals of nonexistent output – in both correspondence and painting – one can still detect a constant effort throughout his adult life to rework and refine the living canvas of his outward persona.
“Along with the self-inspecting goes the self-editing. The false starts and failures are often the first to go. Cezanne had at least one bonfire: Cyril Rougier, later his neighbor in Aix, remembered him detaching an enormous quantity of early works from their stretchers and burning then in 1899.”
Cézanne was a deep thinker and strong intellect – not some unrefined sensationalist hack with a penchant for paint globs. But it was these globs of paint – these patches – attached to canvas so masterfully, that mesmerized and frustrated so many of his contemporaries.
“Patches lived interesting lives. They had a history. The Old Masters as well as the moderns were preoccupied with patches, according to some, even if they were not called that; modern interest dated back almost half a century. A popular artists’ manual of 1827 had described a method of landscape painting in what was called hachures, akin to hatching in drawing, by stabbing on the paint with a thick brush.
Plainly, [patches] ran counter to the ‘well-licked’ surface finish of the salon painting… Inasmuch as they served to discipline sensations, they exercised a kind of policing function: the patch organized the painting…
In patches, all people are equal. The snobberies of genre are nugatory. Still life looks like indoor landscape; landscape looks like outdoor still life. The rules of perspective are broken; conventional expectations are laid to rest. In the landscape, the horizon slips, like a TV screen on the blink.”
Studying one of Cézannes later landscapes is to catch a slight glimpse of the raison d’être obscured behind the artist’s facade. No blazing suns, no menacing clouds, no extensions of the artist’s mood. Just a precise, calculated, thoughtful and painstaking representation of the world as it really is. An attempt to explain the reality of the world through the everyday majesty bestowed upon it by its Creator.
“Today our sight is a little tired, abused by the memory of a thousand images. And the museums, and the paintings in the museums! And the exhibitions! We no longer see nature; we see paintings, over and over again. To see the work of God! That’s what I apply myself to…” –Paul Cézanne
In the end, perhaps the most impressive of all Cézanne’s creations did not involve any paint, canvas or easels. Instead, maybe it was his outward persona, refined over a lifetime that is Cézanne’s greatest legacy. Such beautiful irony that the same Cézanne who had such a magic for understanding the inner life and truth of the subjects he painted, chose to also use this gift in the reverse – to consciously obscure himself behind a meticulously-created facade.