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Post-Impressionist French painter Paul Cézanne is best known for his incredibly varied painting style which greatly affected 20th century abstract art.
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Rather, his impressionism is strained and discomforting, as if he were trying fiercely to coalesce color, brushstroke, surface, and volume into a more tautly unified entity. In the Portrait of Victor Choquet, for instance, the surface is achieved in the face of an obvious struggle: to give each brushstroke parity with the brushstrokes adjacent to it, thereby calling attention to the unity and flatness of the canvas ground; and, at the same time,
to present a convincing impression of the sitter's volume and substantiality. Mature impressionism tended to forsake the latter value in favor of the former; Cézanne himself spent most of the 1880s developing a pictorial language which would reconcile both, but for which there was no precedent.
During the 1880s Paul Cézanne saw less and less of his friends, and several personal events affected him deeply. In 1886 he married Hortense Fiquet, a model with whom he had been living for 17 years, and his father died the same year. Probably the most significant event of this year, however, was the publication of the novel L'Oeuvre by his friend Zola. The hero of the story is a painter (generally acknowledged to be a composite of Cézanne and Manet) whom Zola presented as an artistic failure. Cézanne took this presentation as a critical denunciation of his own career and, bitterly hurt, he never spoke to Zola again.
Cézanne's isolation in Aix began to lessen during the 1890s. In 1895, owing largely to the urging of Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir, the dealer Ambroise Vollard showed a large number of Cézanne's paintings, and public interest in his work slowly began to develop. In 1899, 1901, and 1902 the artist sent pictures to the annual Salon des Indépendants in Paris, and in 1904 he was given an entire room at the Salon d'Automne. While painting outdoors in the fall of 1906 Cézanne was overtaken by a storm and became ill. He died in Aix on October 22, 1906. At the Salon d'Automne of 1907 his achievement was honored with a large retrospective exhibition.
Cézanne's paintings from the last three decades of his life established new paradigms for the development of modern art. Working slowly and patiently, he transformed the restless power of his earlier years into the structuring of a pictorial language that has affected almost every radical phase of 20th-century art. This new language is apparent in many works, including the Bay of Marseilles from L'Estaque (1883-1885), Mont Sainte-Victoire (1885-1887), the Cardplayers (1890-1892), the White Sugar Bowl (1890-1894), and the Great Bathers (1895-1905).
Each of these works confronts the viewer with its identity as a painting; that is, the images of landscape, still life, or human figure are spread in all directions across the surface so that the surface compels attention in and of itself. The consistency of short, hatched brushstrokes helps to ensure this surface unity. Likewise, individual colors are scattered throughout a given composition, and their repetition generates a color web across the canvas ground. But color and brushstroke serve other ends as well. Cézanne's brush stroke, for instance, is used to model individual masses and spaces as if those masses and spaces were carved out of paint itself. It is these brush strokes which the cubists employed in their analysis of form. And color, while unifying and establishing surface, also tends to generate space and volume, because, as various colors are juxtaposed, some tend to recede into space while others appear to project toward the viewer. What this means is that Cézanne achieves flatness and spatiality at the same time. By calling primary attention to the painting's flatness, however, he denies the possibility that his space or volume can be read as if it were being seen through a window. In other words, his space and volume belong exclusively to the painting medium. Paul Cézanne's insistence on the integrity and uniqueness of painting as a medium has additionally meant that the demands of visible reality must ultimately give way when they meet the demands of the pictorial surface. This was a crucial step in the development of abstract art in the 20th century.
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