(HOST) Many consider the French artist Paul Cezanne the father of modern painting, but one hundred years after his death commentator Mike Martin observes that he suffered for it and was often misunderstood.
(MARTIN) You may be familiar with Cezanne’s forlorn card players sitting at wooden tables wearing wooden expressions. Or you may know of his paintings of Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in Provence he painted more than sixty times. Or you may have seen his still-lifes with oranges that look heavier than lead and tablecloths that wrinkle up like mountains. But even if you know Cezanne’s paintings, you might not put him in the same league as, say, Rembrandt or Michelangelo, as some do. And yet Pablo Picasso put it this way, “[Cezanne] is the father of us all.”
The first thing to understand about Cezanne is that he was a reject among rejects. That’s right, if the Impressionists were outsiders, Cezanne was usually the one the furthest outside, the least admired, and the most often ridiculed. Cezanne was first rejected by art school in Paris, and then by the official Salon six times. It is said that when Parisians first saw Cezanne’s paintings, the men belly-laughed and the women giggled into their handkerchiefs. One critic said it looked as though the paint had been shot out of a pistol at the canvas. Another said that the artist must be suffering from the “shakes” from alcohol withdrawal. With Manet and Pissarro, he eventually participated in the Salon des Refuses, the Impressionists’ alternative to the main exhibit, but even his idol, and sometimes supporter, Manet, said that Cezanne was a “mason who painted with a trowel”.
And even Cezanne’s best friend betrayed him. As boys growing up in Provence, he and his buddy, Emile Zola, were inseparable: they hunted together, traded poetry, and went swimming together near Aix-en-Provence. Later, when Zola was becoming a great journalist and novelist in Paris, he begged Cezanne to join him. Zola even supported Cezanne’s great love and illegitimate son when Cezanne didn’t have the means to. But after thirty years of friendship, and artistic hardship for Cezanne, Zola sent his friend a copy of his novel The Masterpiece, the tragedy of a frustrated artist like Cezanne who fails in his work and eventually takes his own life. Cezanne didn’t appreciate the resemblance. He never spoke to Zola again.
Of course, in the end Cezanne didn’t commit suicide. By the time he died in 1906, the public was starting to realize that he was showing the way for modern painting. His monumental treatment of nature and his use of multiple perspectives made Cubism, and much more, possible. Suddenly everyone wanted to pay their respects to the grouchy hermit still painting under the harsh sun of Provence.
So take heart, dear artists, writers, and creators of all kinds. Celebrate the centennial of Cezanne’s death this year by sticking to your guns and not selling out. For in the end, Cezanne, the most rejected Impressionist, the lonely father of modern painting, was right to be stubborn. He could look back on his work and see that it was good.
Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.