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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 FEBRUARY 2012 — Art-lovers should look closely at the title of this exhibition before rushing to the Luxembourg Museum to see their favourite Cézanne paintings.The Card Players, Cézanne’s monumental series of bathers, nor even his paintings of the Mont Saint-Victoire, magnificent works which belong to Paul Cézanne’s mature period spent at his family home, the imposing Jas de Bouffan  in the sunny South of France near Aix-en-Provence where he was born, are not to be seen here. Cézanne and Paris is, as it says, an exhibition of some 80 paintings, drawings and watercolours completed in and around the areas near the French capital.

Cézanne, destined by his father for a career in law and banking, was barely 20 years old when he first visited Paris at the invitation of his old school-friend, the writer Emile Zola, a friend he later quarrelled with and refused to speak to for the rest of his life. He’d been taking drawing lessons at a local school near his home and was eager to ‘conquer’ the French capital. He craved recognition and for his paintings to be shown in the salon, and to this end he attended the academy run by Charles Suisse where he met Pissarro and Guillaumin, and where he first worked with live models. His afternoons were spent in the Luxembourg museum where he discovered the paintings of Delacroix or in the Louvre, a place he returned to again and again throughout the course of his life.

Paul Cézanne: L’Eternel Féminin ou Le Veau d’or, circa 1877
Oil on canvas
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In 1877 he completed one of the most surprising paintings in the exhibition. L’Eternel feminin is one of a series of erotic, unattractive but compelling works. A naked woman, her arms and legs apart is displayed on a white sheet for all to see. There’s a bald man with his back to us, possibly Cézanne himself, surrounded by musicians, a bishop, a soldier, and a man offering her a bag of money, but most strangely, although all are leaning towards her, none are looking at her. Her horizontal bed is tipped up, giving the impression she’s looking down at her admirers, demonstrating that the artist abandoned any attempt at perspective as a convention to discard for the benefit of a composition. The unrealistic treatment of space accentuates the tormented atmosphere.

It is easier to admire Femme nue where the idea apparently originated from a label on a bottle of champagne he drank with Zola. The woman, (Leda and the swan?), is sensually offering herself, but the simplicity of the still life of the fruit beside her belies any erotic intention.

Paul Cézanne: Femme nue couchée, 1886-1890
Oil on canvas
Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

However, what is more surprising in the work of a man who spent almost half of his artistic life in Paris, is not that he completed so many works there, but that he scarcely painted the city itself at all. He was restless, constantly moving around and living at nearly twenty different addresses. Les Toits de Paris, completed in 1882, was painted from the window of his small, three-room flat on the fifth floor of a building in the Rue de l’Ouest, behind Montmartre. But what is surprising is that the focal point of the work is not the view itself, showing the treetops of the cemetery of Montmartre and several church spires, including that of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, but the vast expanse of zinc roofing which takes up half the painting. Nor is the sky ‘finished’, as he abruptly left the city for an absence of 6 years, returning to paint along the banks of the Seine. 

He was happiest painting alone, choosing secluded spots on the banks of the river Marne or the l’Oise, where his riverside canvases in shades of blue and green captured the peace around him and what he referred to as the ‘silence’ of nature. He visited Claude Monet at his home in Giverny and met the art-lover, Dr Gachet at Auvers-sur-l’Oise, an attractive small town more usually associated with Vincent van Gogh, and where he himself set up his canvas one summer at nearby Montgeroult. 

Paul Cézanne: La Maison du pendu, Auvers-sur-Oise, circa 1873
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© Photo Rmn - Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay)
Hervé Lewandowski

La Maison du pendu, painted at Auvers sur l’Oise, although rejected and mocked at by the critics, is one of the paintings which gave personal satisfaction to the artist. And rightly so; it is now considered as the masterpiece of Cézanne’s impressionist period. It belongs also to the period where his work became lighter in colour, but unlike the "true impressionists", he introduced geometric forms and layers of colour, giving a feeling of permanence. He tells no story, no people are present, and the buildings, dilapidated, appear to have been abandoned long ago.

For Cézanne a still life painting, with its relationship between colour and form, was an investigation of space and the geometry of volumes, even when painting his wife, the long suffering Hortense Figuet who never understood his art, disliked the people around him, and loathed living in the country. He liked, he said, her placid temperament and the fact that she patiently posed for hours for him without moving or speaking. With her inexpressive, impassive face, the portrait, Madame Cézanne à la jupe rayée, Mrs Cézanne with a striped skirt, focuses on the material of her dress. She herself sits in silence, installed unmoving in a red armchair, much as a still life of apples, to which, indeed, he compared her. The patterned wallpaper behind her is the same as in the other paintings of apples, pears, peaches, and grapes and diverse objects which he arranged in different ways, on cloths or in bowls, and which have been displayed in the same section, linking them altogether in some mysterious way.

Paul Cézanne: Madame Cézanne à la jupe rayée, circa 1877
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Bridgeman Giraudon

Paul Cézanne spent his life searching for lines and volumes and trying to find a pictoral harmony in his organisation of the masses and the spaces separating them. It mattered little to him whether the painting was a still life, a portrait or a landscape. A person, a face, a tree, an apple or a house, it was all the same to him.

Paul Cézanne: Le Nègre Scipion, circa 1867
Oil on canvas Sao Paulo, MASP
 Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
© Museu de Arte, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Giraudon / Bridgeman Giraudo

Having finally made his name in Paris, he retired to his beloved South in 1870, abandoning wife and son in Paris. The fact that Hortense, whom he had met in 1869, sat so uncomplainingly for him for more than thirty works did not exclude him from cutting her out of his will. He left his entire estate to his son. However, apart from throwing a certain light on his rather solitary, unpleasant personality, the central theme of this unusual exhibition questions whether Cézanne’s comings and goings between the French capital and the South help one to better understand his art. But for most visitors, the main interest is in being able to see a great many paintings not shown before, neither in exhibitions nor in books.

Cézanne and Paris
Through 26 February 2012
Musée du Luxembourg
19 rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris
(33) 01 42 34 25 95

Headline image: Paul Cézanne: Portrait de l’artiste au papier peint olivâtre, 1880-1881
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on The Steins: Patrons of the Parisian Avant-Garde.

External News Link: Qatar Purchases Cézanne’s The Card Players for More Than $250 Million, Highest Price Ever for a Work of Art (Vanity Fair, 2 February 2012)

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