Still Life with Apples
Mont Sainte-Victoire
The François Zola Dam (Mountains in Provence)
Château Noir
Bathers
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“With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne’s passion was only ever art. History has been kind to his paintings, to which this show, Cézanne at Tate Modern, is a testimony. He is recognised as an innovator in modern art and is credited by Pablo Picasso for techniques that directly led to Cubism. But for much of his life he went unrecognized, refused by art institutions, discouraged by family and friends and chastised by art critics. None of this deterred him from his love of oil painting.

Cézanne was born in 1839, the son of a wealthy but domineering banker in the rural south of France Aix-en-Provence. At the age of thirteen, he became close friends with Émile Zola who would go on to become one of France’s favourite authors and a champion for the underprivileged. At the age of twenty-one, the painter and the author moved to Paris to continue their education.

For decades Cézanne vainly submitted paintings to the Salon of the Académie. The Paris Salon dated back to 1667 and was the official art exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts. Not only did they disapprove of his painting techniques, but they also disapproved of his style, which was not Neoclassical or Romantic. He favoured still lifes and landscapes, which until that time were relevant only as backdrops in grand paintings of heroics or perfect human beauty.

In 1886, his father died and left him a large inheritance, freeing him from financial concerns. That same year Émile Zola published L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) about a successful writer and a failed painter. Cézanne took it personally, and the two had a falling out. But he continued to paint landscapes, still lifes and portraits. Free of the pressure to sell his paintings, he developed his own mature style that reduced the visible world into the most basic underlying shapes, yet also retained a painterly quality. He painted slowly and with great care, often doing many studies on the same subject. He disregarded approved Salon traditions like shading and perspective. His paintings were without a visible source of lighting and had no vanishing point for the eye to move beyond. These innovations foreshadowed techniques that would be used by abstract painters.

Artists from Paris began to recognise his art was something original. In 1895, at the urging of Pissarro, Monet and Renoir, Cézanne agreed to a one-man exhibition of over 100 canvases by art dealer Ambroise Vollard. From this point forward, Cézanne’s talent was appreciated. In 1897, the Berlin National Gallery was the first museum to buy one of his paintings.

In 1906 Cézanne, who was already diabetic, got soaked in a rainstorm while painting. He came down with pneumonia and never recovered.

The Autumn Gallery in Paris had a posthumous retrospective of Cézanne in 1907. Fifty-six of his works were presented. The retrospective was seen by two young painters, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Both were awed by Cézanne’s innovations. Picasso experimented with Cézanne’s techniques, which led to the invention of Cubism in 1909. Matisse applied Cézanne’s focus on colour to develop Fauvism.

Cézanne once claimed, “With an apple, I will astonish Paris.” That is precisely what he did. Cezanne’s still lifes, landscapes and paintings of bathers gave licence to generations of artists to break the rule book. The history of painting was never to be the same again.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Tate Modern