I have chosen Paul Cezanne for the first Artist Profile, because to my mind, he was the greatest painter ever. It is extremely difficult to say just why this is so - many knowledgeable writers and artists have tried, and admittedly failed. I will try anyway.
Cezanne was born in 1839 in the south of France. His banker father wanted him to study law, but the young Cezanne wanted something else. He and his childhood friend, novelist Emile Zola, wanted to be an artist and a writer, respectively. Their heads were spinning with the new ideas of the day, and big dreams of their future glory.
At 15, he studied drawing at the local drawing academy, then at the proper time, entered law school. He eventually convinced his father to allow him to go to Paris to paint, where he attended sessions with a live model. He showed no particular aptitude for drawing up to this point. (At that time, at the academies in Europe, art in general, and drawing in particular, were taught with much 'academicism,' which means that strict rules were followed with regard to anatomical accuracy, and the proper means of instruction, which had been passed on for many decades in the same fashion.) From the start, Cezanne did not fit into this mold; at the same time, young students with whom he was to change the course of art, also did not fit into the mold: Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and others. To attain success as an artist, it was then necessary to succeed at the official Academy, which was at the time tied to the government. Here one could get the commissions necessary to make a living as an artist, and be accepted in their annual exhibitions.
His first stay in Paris was short; but he had managed to find the acquaintance of some artists for whom the Academy was not the final authority in art. Disappointed in his own lack of facility, however, he returned to his home town and worked in his father's bank for a year. But the bank was not his cup of tea, and he again returned to Paris to study in a small academy there. (He had applied to study in the official art academy, but was rejected.) His early style (three small images on the left side - click to enlarge them) was the complete opposite of the official, academic style - it was rough, unrefined, a riot of thick brushstrokes and color, with rather passionate, even somewhat erotic, themes. Compared with the bland, smooth brushstrokes, lofty subject matter, and muted color of the academic artists, his work was a rude shock, and perhaps meant to be so.
But new ideas of painting were in the air. Courbet and Edouard Manet were painting with realism and boldness of subject matter and style, in a more contemporary manner. The young student friends were soaking up these new ideas, as well as studying the masters in the Louvre, the French art museum. They did not want to paint like the academicians - they wanted to paint outside, from life, not in their studios; they wanted clear, bright color, not the browns and grays of established painters. They wanted to paint with small, visible strokes, not 'Victorian smoothness,' as Cezanne referred to it. And, they wanted to paint modern life, not scenes of history or classical Greece. Pissarro, particularly, influenced Cezanne's way of thinking and working. He urged Cezanne to paint landscapes from nature, to discipline himself by studying the landscapes in front of him. Cezanne's undisciplined style became more steadied under Pissarro's influence; he became much more focused with his energy. His color became more subdued, with earth colors, rather than the blacks, whites, and reds of his early work. He painted with the group that was to become the Impressionists.
Even at this stage, however, his work remained somewhat different than Monet and Renoir. Their tiny strokes were rounded, soft; his were square, more blunt, more structural. While they were more interested in color and light, he was still concerned with form and structure; these differences put Cezanne in the category of Post-Impressionism, along with Gauguin, Van Gogh and others, which means that as a group they were much influenced by Impressionism, but their work moved forward from it to other artistic concerns. He remained friends with the Impressionist group all his life, and continued to show his work with theirs in their independent exhibitions. (They had repeatedly been rejected by the official Salon, the annual Academy exhibition; it began to be a source of both amusement and disappointment to them.) They knew they were forging a new vision, and continued to create their new work, though it meant struggle and hardship for those without economic means.
Cezanne gradually forged his own unique vision. What he lacked in facility, he more than made up for in stubborn determination and hard work. He returned to Aix-en-Provence to his family estate, and even though he married and had a child, he continued to live and work in his family home. In the first years, his wife and child were models for many drawings and paintings. He was an extremely sensitive, and sometimes difficult, person. He spoke of the 'knavery' of humans in general; he preferred to live and work in solitude. He painted every day - either outside on landscapes, or in his studio, on one of many still lifes he had set up, or on portraits of his family. He would work on paintings for many years - trying to reach the point of perfection, where each stroke, each color, each value, was absolutely aligned with all the other strokes, colors, and values. He was seldom satisfied with his work, and yet it bothered him that, aside from his Impressionist friends, no one understood or appreciated what he was doing.
Now: To explain why he was so great... Partly, it is due to his "extreme anxiety," as Picasso described it. He simply wouldn't give up until either he felt the picture finally was perfectly unified and resolved, or that it would never be; in the latter case, he might destroy it or leave it in a field. His paintings are all more than the sum of their parts. He juggled all the variables of painting: each stroke had to carry its proper place, color, value, spatial relationship, drawing, and expressive function. The proper solution was based not on fidelity to external reality, but fidelity to the formal qualities of each work: spatial, compositional, and color relationships. He would sometimes distort objects and perspective in the work in order to clarify the pictorial reality, the primacy of the image itself. Each stroke played a crucial role in the visual structure of the painting, an almost godlike ambition; somewhat like having every word in a 1000-page novel be exactly, precisely the right word - without a single superfluous or uncomfortable fit. Believe me when I tell you, this is an extraordinarily high standard to set for oneself, and few either try or succeed. Not only did he set this sight, he attained it - over and over again, in hundreds of works as perfect as any mortal man could ever paint. Where the interrelationships of color, space, composition, structure, and expressiveness are so finely tuned that they literally sing from the canvas, in harmony so close only celestial music would sound so pure.
His millions of touches, and retouches, are so tender as to be heart-breaking; they are painted with the highest form of love - that which sacrifices even oneself for the expression which is ultimately for the universe. His painting, like Beethoven's music, is as powerful as painting can be - irrefutable, with the affirmation of the human voice. Part of the power lies in the pictorial structure, which is the first time in painting that the visual structure, of a landscape or still life, is actually constructed on the canvas; it is the architecture, the skeleton, that the colors hang on; and the structure is not hidden behind the subject matter - the structure IS the subject matter. It is visually solid - and therefore, it becomes philosophically solid, as well; perhaps in the classical, Greek sculpture sense - the beauty of the three-dimensional perfection is astounding. It tells us what is possible for humans.
In a formal (pictorial values) sense, Cezanne's great contribution was that he invented a new kind of space in painting. In the 400 years prior to the late 19th century, space in painting was Renaissance space - which was illusional space, linear perspective, trying to depict the illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface. The canvas was like a window looking out onto the real world, with parallel lines meeting at a point on the horizon line. After 1850, certain artists (Manet, for instance) began to gradually see the canvas not as a window on the world, but its own world, with its own laws. They did not want to depict space in terms of perspective, but more as a flat surface. And, rather than smoothing over the brushstrokes in order to model three dimensions in objects, they chose to paint in separate touches, or facets, of objects, not blending them together. Also, instead of the chiaroscuro (light and dark shading) from the Renaissance, they used color as much or more than value to depict volumes and space. Cezanne carried this further by constructing the objects or landscape into a pictorial structure, or architecture, and leaving it exposed in the work. What he did was to combine both the Renaissance notion of deep space, with the modern notion of the flat surface. This combining caused his paintings to have both flatness and three-dimensional space; the forms have both volume AND flatness. This combination causes a certain tension in his work - like geological tables colliding - which is so perfectly resolved that the tension provides movement, and his resolution of the tension provides an eternal harmony. This combining of two types of space also accounts for his distortions of objects and perspective; depicting the "correct" perspective would destroy the visual integrity of the flat pictorial surface/space.
This new space has been much discussed in artistic circles, and is perhaps the biggest influence on modern art of the 20th century. Cezanne died in 1906; until 1905, he was virtually unknown except for his Impressionist friends and a few younger artists. In 1905, a large showing of his work was mounted in Paris. Younger artists saw the work, and were very impressed, Picasso among them. Cezanne's structural facets led Picasso and Braque to Cubism. And generally, Cezanne's obsession with formal perfection began Modernism, with its often stringent concern with formal qualities (space, color, composition, etc.), making the painting "work." This strenuous regard for formal qualities lasted through over half of the 20th century, until Pop art came along and focused on other, somewhat less somber concerns. I think it also probably contributed to the utter sobriety and taking-self-seriously of much modern art, with its lofty aspirations and sometimes humorless approach. But, a huge number of 20th century artists, many of whom were its most influential, claimed a major debt to Cezanne, who believed that theory comes from practice, and not before. Some of his ideas later became a kind of dogma for some; I think he wouldn't have liked that - he believed that a painter should form his own conclusions, based on a lifetime of work and study, before nature and by looking at the greatest art of the museums.
I have admired Cezanne for many years, his portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. But when I saw the Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1990's, I was bowled over by the portraits there. I think Cezanne is generally admired for his more cerebral qualities, and for his still lifes and landscapes; the quality of excess emotion is usually reserved for another well-known Post-Impressionist, Van Gogh. But those portraits had so much powerful emotion in them, I was moved beyond anything I'd ever seen. First of all, many of the portraits in the show were much larger than I'd pictured in my mind, having seen them only in reproductions. The combination of the size, the extreme sensitivity of the paint handling and the color, and the obvious and powerful emotional content was a revelation to me. He painted in such a way as to almost be building his forms, with small bricks. His figures, then, seem to be constructed as three-dimensional clay forms. This helps make his figures come alive.
I think that because art did not come easily to Cezanne, he was able to forge his own way; his lack of facility was actually an advantage for him, in regard to his greatness. Writers who have written about Cezanne include Roger Fry, Meyer Schapiro, Clive Bell and John Rewald (Rewald wrote the definitive book, The History of Impressionism).
Portrait of Chocquet, oil on canvas, 1875, 18-1/8 x 14-1/8 inches. Scan by Mark Harden, of www.artchive.com
Note how the head seems more like it was sculpted, than painted. Also, the distortion of the shape of the head, and the sensitive brushwork combine to produce a very emotional portrait. Renoir also painted a portrait of Chocquet, which is remarkable for its difference from the Cezanne portrait - Renoir's softly Impressionistic, Cezanne's ruggedly solid. The subject of this portrait, Victor Chocquet, was a collector and friend of the Impressionists, particularly Cezanne, and also an apologist for them. He would collar everyone he could at their independent exhibitions, to defend them against their detractors, and try to convince anyone and everyone of the artistic merit of Impressionism. Perhaps that is the reason for the tenderness of this portrait.
Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry, oil on canvas, 1897. Scan by Mark Harden, of www.artchive.com.
Note the dominant structural quality of mountain, trees and stone. The brushstrokes are unified by their similar structural quality. The painting is solid and has depth, yet is also very firmly and flatly placed on the picture plane. Visit the original scan at Artchive to see the brushwork clearly.
Still Life with Watermelon and Pomegranates, watercolor and pencil on paper, 1900-1906, 12 x 18-1/2 inches. Scan by Mark Harden, of www.artchive.com.
I highly recommend going to the above website to see the full-sized scan of this watercolor. The strokes are wonderful manifestations of a lyrical contemplation while working, and the colors used in the work interact to form a beautiful chorus. (Imagine spending 6 years on a watercolor...)
I highly recommend that you visit www.artchive.com to see the Cezanne paintings I've listed below (and others too). Click on the Mona Lisa image, and click on the Cezanne link in the list on the left side. The images have good resolution and look great on the screen, giving you a good view of Cezanne's intricate brushwork.