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Art history: Why is Paul Cezanne important?

BY Anna Walker

1st Sep 2022 Art & Theatre

Art history: Why is Paul Cezanne important?

Natalia Sidlina, curator of International Art and Michael Raymond, assistant curator of International Art, discuss the Tate Modern’s upcoming Cezanne show

Reader's Digest: Who was Paul Cezanne?  Why is Cezanne considered an important artist?  

Natalia Sidlina and Michael Raymond: Born in Aix-en-Provence in southern France in 1839, Paul Cezanne is one of the most highly regarded and enigmatic artists of the late 19th-century.

Famously referred to as the “greatest of us all” by Claude Monet, Cezanne remains a pivotal figure in modern painting who gave license to generations of artists to break the rules.

Created amid a rapidly accelerating world, his works focus on the local and the everyday, concentrating on the artist’s own personal experiences to make sense of the chaos and uncertainty of modern life. 

Paul Cezanne impressionistic painting of a house in the trees, titled Château Noir and painted from 1900 to 1904Credit: Paul Cezanne Château Noir 1900-4. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer, 1958.10.1

RD: What makes Cezanne's work special?  

NS and MR: Cezanne developed a radical approach to colour, form and space.

By approaching painting as an existential experience, as a process, as an investigation, he pushed traditional artistic habits to their breaking points and arguably beyond.

"By approaching painting as an existential experience, he pushed traditional artistic habits to their breaking points"

He experimented with using touches of colour to describe his “sensations”—as he called them—of the external world, creating compositions that are deeply personal.

This might explain his enduring appeal, as it is an approach that resonates with contemporary thought as much as it paved the way for early 20th-century painters. 

RD: How have the works in this new Cezanne exhibition been selected? And do you have a favourite piece on show?  

NS and MR: Over ninety extraordinary oil paintings, watercolours and drawings by Cezanne as well as archival materials have been carefully selected for this exhibition, on loan from private and public institutions around the world.

The exhibition’s narrative revolves around two lines of enquiry.

The first suite of galleries will focus on Cezanne’s biography and take a loose chronological structure, looking at the artist’s interactions with family and key friends, such as Émile Zola and Camille Pissarro.

The second half of the exhibition investigates Cezanne’s revolutionary practice.

Here, we are taking a closer look at the artist’s engagement with seriality and the works he is best known for: stunning still lifes, serene bathers and his decades long study of the monumental Mont Sainte-Victoire.

"It was breathtaking to experience the colours, the sky, the shape of the mountain and the pine trees"

The exhibition finishes with the explosion of creativity from the final six years of his life, when he was very aware of his mortality. 

The exhibition will feature many special artworks, 22 of which have never been shown in the UK before now.

One of our favourites is Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (c.1895-99) on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

One of the most incredible things was visiting Aix-en-Provence, walking the same paths Cezanne walked, experiencing the same landscapes, and going into the Bibémus quarries that he played in as a child and later painted.

It was breathtaking to experience the colours, the sky, the shape of the mountain and the pine trees. 

Paul Cezanne's impressionistic painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire scene 1902 - 1906Credit: Paul Cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire 1902-6. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Helen Tyson Madeira, 1977, 1977-288-1

RD: What can we learn about Cezanne’s relationship with his wife and son through the works on show here?  

NS and MR: A room in the exhibition will focus on Cezanne’s family life. Cezanne first met his partner Marie-Hortense Fiquet (1850–1922) in Paris in 1869, when she was working as a bookbinder.

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, the couple fled to the fishing village L’Estaque near Marseille, before returning to Paris where their son Paul was born in 1872.

As Cezanne was financially supported by his own father, he kept his relationship with Hortense and their son hidden from his own parents, fearing their disapproval.

Cezanne and Hortense had separate residences and often lived for long periods in different cities, even after they eventually married in 1886.  

Despite their unconventional family dynamic, Hortense and Paul regularly feature in Cezanne’s portraiture.

Cezanne famously demanded long punishing sessions from his models, making him a tricky and exacting artist to sit for. He has reportedly commanded his sitters: “be an apple!”

Whereas his family, admittedly sometimes asleep, were willing to tolerate his demands, allowing him the time to develop and hone this side to his practice.

Hortense appeared in 27 portraits by Cezanne across a period of over 20 years, attesting to a closeness and partnership between the couple.    

RD: What is your favourite little-known fact about Cezanne?  

NS and MR: Reading Cezanne’s correspondence in French as well as in the new translation by Alex Danchev unveiled a different facet to the artist’s personality—that he was of one of the best educated and well-read artists of his time.

"He was of one of the best educated and well-read artists of his time"

Cezanne wrote poetry, translated and studied classical literature in depth and had a deep interest in the natural sciences.

His close-knit group of friends included renowned novelist Emile Zola, professor of natural sciences Antoine-Fortuné Marion and professor of optics Baptistin Baille—all key Provençale intellectuals of his time.

Paul Cezanne's painting of naked bathers in river, titled Bathers and painted between 1874 and 1875Credit: Paul Cezanne Bathers 1874-5. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, 1975

 RD: What do you hope visitors to the show will take away from the exhibition?  

NS and MR: The EY Exhibition: Cezanne is the first in a generation to take a holistic look at Cezanne’s life and career, rather than focusing on a specific aspect.

With this exhibition we are keen to explore new ideas and questions about the artist that are relevant for today’s audiences.

For example, building on recent scholarship we are keen to show how Cezanne engaged with the socio-political context and turbulent times—much like our own—through which he was living.

Meanwhile, bringing us to the present we wished to showcase his ongoing relevance to contemporary artists.

The EY Exhibition: Cezanne is showing at the Tate Modern from the 5 October - 12 March 2023. Visit the Tate shop to book tickets.

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