#3. “Every inch a painter”: Paul Cézanne
Alex Danchev is the author of Cézanne: A Life. He selects five things that the man known variously as ‘the father of modern art’ and ‘a drunken cess-pit emptier’ might have enjoyed in the year in which he would have turned 174…
Words: Alex Danchev
1. His own colossal reputation
Cézanne died in 1906 at the age of sixty-seven. At the time of his death, he was at once unknown and famous, as one critic put it. His peers knew very well that something extraordinary was afoot. Monet owned fourteen Cézannes; three of them hung in his bedroom. Pissarro owned twenty-one. Gauguin used to take his favourite Cézanne still life to a nearby restaurant and hold forth on its remarkable qualities. ‘How does he do it?’ asked Renoir. ‘He has only to put two dabs of colour on a canvas and it’s already something.’ Already the word was spreading. In 1905 the prestigious journal the Mercure de France published a survey of artists on the state of modern painting. One of the questions was: ‘What do you make of Cézanne?’ Answers varied dramatically, from veneration to execration. ‘The painting of a drunken cess-pit emptier,’ said one. Cézanne’s followers would raise a glass to the drunken cess-pit emptier whenever they got together.
One short century later, the drunken cess-pit emptier is in the pantheon with Rembrandt, Vermeer and Chardin. Cézanne was a curious mixture of pride and humility, but I think he would have relished that.
2. The shift towards urban conservation
Cézanne deplored the destruction wrought in towns and cities by the ‘biped’, as he disparagingly called us. He liked old street lamps, cobbled streets, a sense of human scale in public spaces, room to breathe, places to walk and sit and drink and talk, workshops for traditional crafts to flourish. His familiars in Aix-en-Provence, where he grew up and where he lived all his life, were all craftsmen of a kind: the baker, the wine-maker, the stone-mason, the sculptor. Inasmuch as we have become more aware of the costs and consequences of urban vandalism, and try now to control development, establish conservation areas and the like, I think Cézanne would applaud a little learning – slow learning.
3. Dog control
Dogs, especially barking dogs, were the bane of his life. They spoiled the concentration necessary to make a good painting. Cézanne told his dealer how much he admired the Prefect of Police who was reported to have given an order to arrest every one of them (when next distracted by a barking dog: ‘le bougre, he’s escaped!’). Failing more drastic measures, he would have strongly approved of dog licences and other controls on canine intrusion.
4. Advances in medical research
Around 1890, Cézanne was diagnosed with diabetes. What exactly this meant for him is difficult to establish with certainty, in the absence of any medical records. What is more certain is that the available treatments were not very efficacious. They were also depressing. Cézanne submitted to the usual treatments of that pre-insulin age: dieting, massage, a battery of homeopathic remedies. Strict dieting for the diabetic was apt to be a miserable affair of gluten bread, bran muffins, or almond biscuits. Cézanne liked to eat – diabetes or no diabetes, his favourite dish was potatoes in oil. He was also partial to a good bottle of Médoc. His housekeeper had her work cut out. He would surely have appreciated the prodigious advances in medical science.
5. The reputation of others
Cézanne had decided views on the merits of a vast range of artists and writers. For one who is supposed to have spent all his waking hours painting, he was a mighty reader, and a formidable intellect, as his letters make clear. Perhaps his favourite contemporary author was Charles Baudelaire. ‘One who is strong is Baudelaire,’ he wrote to his son near the end, as if passing him on to the next generation. ‘His Art romantique is amazing, and he makes no mistake in the artists he appreciates.’ Baudelaire’s L’Art romantique (1868) was a work Cézanne read and reread all his life. Among many wonderful things, it contained the celebrated essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and, of greater import for Cézanne, a eulogy on the life and work of Delacroix. Cézanne idolised Delacroix.
Cézanne was also said to know by heart the poems in Baudelaire’s scandalous collection The Flowers of Evil. He would often take a paint-splattered copy out into the countryside with him on painting expeditions. I think it would have pleased him enormously that Baudelaire is now recognised as a foundational figure in the creation of European modernism – like Cézanne himself.
Cézanne: A Life is published by Pantheon and Profile and is available in good bookshops.
© 2013, The Fertile Fact / Alex Danchev