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A retrospective from 1916, ten years after the artist's death.

Paul Cezanne/Wikimedia Commons

The pleasures that art gives and those that commerce with men and things affords differ only in this, that in our ordinary life feeling is an accompaniment of action, whereas in aesthetic contemplation it is the product of frustrated action and is felt as belonging to the thing that we regard. This means that the impulse to action aroused in us by what we see is contradicted by an impulse to sit quietly and look, and the feelings that arise in connection with these active and counteractive tendencies are experienced as a quality of the thing beheld. To the picture that stimulates these impulses and consequent feelings, because it is the object of our attention, we attribute the qualities that the feelings themselves imply. The range of these aesthetic values is practically as wide as the range of values in actual life, and one has only to review the pictures of all kinds that one has known, to realize the variety of feelings which pictorial expression can awaken.

A work of art deserves importance largely from its capacity to give stability and durability to fluctuating and evanescent values. Things that an artist sees when he is looking with an artist’s eye can be preserved. These things are often quite uninteresting to ordinary seeing. A china plate by Chardin may be beautiful, although the same plate in itself would pass unnoticed. It did not pass unnoticed by Chardin, and there precisely is the important point. The artist did not look to see what the plate was like, but just to see it, and anything so looked at comes to have the value of existence. With practice even people who are not artists can learn to see so as to become conscious of a thing’s reality. Man has a deep sense of his insecurity and transitoriness, and nothing appeals to him more strongly than reality. The metaphysician studies it, the moralist ponders it, the plain man demands it, and even children often ask, “But is it really real?” In painting no one has dealt so powerfully with the rendering of some aspects of reality as Cézanne.

Cézanne was a native of southern France, sensitive and intelligent, who took to painting against the wishes of his father, a small banker in Provençe. He tried both law and banking, but his interest in affairs could not be roused, and so at 22 he settled down in Paris to study. He was companionable and affectionate, but very timid, with occasional outbreaks of determined self-assertion. His pictures were rejected at the Salon, and he was too diffident to play much of a part in the café controversies, despite his positive opinions. He frequented the Louvre and worked a good deal intermittently, but he himself declares that only after his return to solitude in his own town did he begin his really strenuous work. 

It is this Cézanne of the later years we know. He had become a man absorbed in painting, and negligent of everything else. He lacked completely the sense of practical affairs. Naturally trusting and affectionate, he had become suspicious and embittered through rejection and neglect. He felt profoundly his inability to cope with men or things, and answered to disturbances with fits of violent rage or sulks. He had innumerable phobias and manias. Especially he feared women and the designs on him which he imputed to them all. He was a man oppressed, tormented, isolated, with only one real aim in life—to paint, attain to mastery, and in the end create.

It seems at first sight strange that just this man, whose generous, sensitive, intelligent nature had been so wrested from sanity, who had become so unregulated in his conduct and so unbalanced, should have been, above all other painters, he who most persistently struggled with the problem of rendering matter stable and organic form substantial. Nor was this true only with reference to the object represented. The picture as a whole was organized and made coherent, its parts interrelated and compacted, to a degree that before had never been approached. Cézanne came into possession of impressionist means and their idea of color. A picture was to be built up of color elements entirely, and light and shade should serve not to gradate large areas of single color, but as a character of those small color spots whose contrasts and harmonies built up the form. Monet and Pissaro had fully freed themselves from blocks of single color, and built up the whole picture of minute color elements. Their interest, however, and especially with Monet, was in the play of light and in things seen as bathed in light. Cézanne, employing the same method, gave no thought to the light in which things floated, but fixed his mind upon the solid thing itself. He tried to get, above all else, substantiality, finality, the eternal, the secure.

There is an obvious opposition between the character of Cézanne’s work and the man’s character, but there is no contradiction. A genuinely creative artist sees the world not as he is taught to see it, but freshly, in the light of his own needs. Cézanne, tormented, agitated, a prey to endless fears, with nothing in the world around him to sustain him, created for himself the thing he needed. Not, of course, the whole of it, for his ideal far outstripped his powers. His longing went out to a world not only solidly but joyously and conqueringly alive. Many of his early works show the spirit of the romantic illustrator, and this temper never left him. Unfortunately he had no freedom of imagination. He could not work without a model sitting with endless patience. Even if he had wished to post a nude—and the female nude he could not use because of his pathological pudicity—no model possibly could stand as Cézanne required. His romantic compositions were therefore replaced occasionally by the groups of nudes called bathers, for which he utilized the studies made in his academy days, but in the main he painted instead the apples and landscapes and rare persons that were sufficiently amenable to his requirements. As flowers did not last until a picture could be finished, he used paper flowers instead, and these had sometimes faded almost white before the picture had reached completion. In fact, it very rarely happened that a picture was to his mind completed. Existence, and more existence, was almost an obsession with him. There were some canvases on which he worked for several decades.

There is no painter of our time so pedestalled as Cézanne. Some hold him quite the greatest of all painters, and give their reasons why he should be so regarded. Those persons who decry him utterly can be neglected because their failure to see anything of worth in him does not refute what others see. It is absurd to say that he lacks beauty. No form that reaches organization can fail of that, and Cézanne’s form is so effectively built up with color, cleanly, delicately and firmly welded, and through his best work run such reverberant rhythms, that one who feels all this can sympathize with his extremest advocates. He is perhaps the most important figure in the history of modern painting, because of his elaboration of constructive color—color, that is, which models form. This was his legacy and made him a precursor. Most of the important painters immediately after him felt this great influence, and perhaps the most serious of the many faults of cubism and kindred movements is that they have diverted painting from this vital trend.

Against this splendid mastery of organized matter we must, however, place the limitations of Cézanne’s effective interest. To those with an esoteric attitude toward paint this is an irrelevant matter, but, as I tried to show in the beginning, all that in life can interest us can do so in art. And if we compare the range of life experience set forth by Cézanne with what the greatest masters have expressed, we see how narrow is that range. When one thinks of Giotto, Rubens or Giorgione, of Titian, Rénoir, Delacroix, and Michelangelo, presenting in substantial form so much of their passionate interest in nature, life and love, the field of Cézanne’s interest is seen as something almost painfully restricted. He himself knew these limitations and bitterly regretted them, for his was a soul intense and palpitating; but his gifts did not allow him freedom, and his febrile, tormented spirit, driven in upon itself, narrowed still more the range of his creative sympathies. He did a limited thing, but one so fundamental—he realized so splendidly the beauty and power of sheer substance—that those who can for the time being dispense with other elements of satisfaction find in him a source of illimitable content.