He would return to the same subjects again and again: forests and trees, fruit and faces, bathers in and out of water. For the renowned French artist Paul Cézanne, it was all about the effort: “I can’t seem to express the intensity which beats in upon my senses,” he said.
“If you look closely at these works, you see the way he moves a pencil across the paper – and he’s always searching for something,” said Jodi Hauptman, a senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, now host to a landmark exhibit of Cézanne’s drawings and watercolors.
The exhibit contains more than 250 works from all over the world.
Hauptman told correspondent Rita Braver that, although Cézanne is best known for his paintings (a few of which are scattered through the exhibit), it’s not the works on canvas, but those on paper – including pages from one of his sketchbooks – that really show how Cézanne thought: “Drawings often are closer to the mind and the hand of the artist,” Hauptman said. “And they were especially intimate for Cézanne, who was working in these sketchbooks all the time and carrying them with him.”
Cézanne was born in 1839 to a well-to-do family in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he broke with his father and went to Paris to work as an artist.
Braver asked, “It was the height of Impressionism; what was it like for him?”
“Well, I think he was always struggling,” Hauptman said. “There’s this sense of, kind of the work of art, that it didn’t come easy to him. He had to try harder than everyone else.”
Cézanne showed his work with the Impressionists, though he didn’t really consider himself one (and didn’t get along with most of them).
“They found him a little rude and uncouth?” asked Braver.
“Yeah, he played up that country-ness, that otherness, that from-the-South,” Hauptman said.
He would spend most of his life back in the south of France. His parents didn’t accept Hortense Fiquet, the artists’ model he married, until the couple had a son. It was a famously difficult marriage, though he often sketched and even painted her.
“There’s a sadness, there’s a kind of tenderness,” Hauptman said of Cézanne’s images of Fiquet. “Even in a household that might not have been a perfect marriage, I think there’s something about that intimacy that is very moving.”
Cézanne spent much of his time rambling through the forests and countryside near his home.
Braver asked about a study of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he did over and over and over again. “He’s trying to understand the shape of the mountain, but he isn’t ever quite getting it,” Hauptman said.
And in MoMA’s lab, conservator Laura Neufeld is putting some of the works under a giant microscope to see how Cézanne made them – interweaving pencil and watercolor in a revolutionary way.
“Traditional watercolor artists were encouraged to draw very lightly, so that when your paint goes on, your sketch disappears,” Neufeld said, “and it looks like you didn’t have to do that step.”
“But he didn’t do that?” Braver asked.
“That is absolutely not his style at all. The pencil was a different tool. It was a way to continue expressing form throughout the process of using color.”
In fact, these closeups of geometric forms help explain why Cézanne is considered a pioneer, paving the way for cubism and abstraction.
Hauptman said, “Sometimes people describe him as kind of the beginning of modernism. He’s working at the end of the 19th into the 20th century, so he kind of leads us into what happens.”
In 2011, a version of Cézanne’s card players went for $250 million. But he never sold much during his lifetime. And though he became a major influence on younger artists, he was increasingly withdrawn.
Paul Cézanne died in 1906 at age 67, after being caught in a storm while working in his beloved countryside. More than a century later, Hauptman hopes this exhibit will help viewers appreciate the significance of Cézanne’s work: “It’s this other way of making art that is about thinking and studying and grasping and searching,” Hauptman said, “and that’s what I think makes these works truly remarkable.”
For more info:
- Cézanne Drawing, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (through September 25)
- Exhibition catalogue: “Cézanne Drawing”
- Paul Cézanne bio at moma.org
- Paul Cezanne: The Complete Works (paul-cezanne.org)
Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Chad Cardin.