Cézanne: A Life

In 1894, the painter Claude Monet organized a small lunch at his estate in Giverny to introduce the critic Gustave Geffroy to the fifty-five-year-old Paul Cézanne, about whom Geffroy had just published an important article. A seasoned host, Monet invited a few others, including the writer Octave Mirbeau, the politician Georges Clemenceau, and the illustrious Auguste Rodin, all of whom came hoping to meet the elusive painter from Aix. Although Cézanne had already completed such masterpieces as Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Armchair and The Card Players, he was just beginning to gain public recognition. The following year, 1895, he would have his first one-man show and also begin work on a majestic dreamscape titled The Large Bathers. But in the company of those assembled at Giverny that day, he was foremost a curiosity. "It's all set for Wednesday," Monet wrote to Geffroy. "I hope that Cézanne will already be here and that he will join us, but he is so peculiar, so fearful of seeing new faces, that I am afraid he may let us down, despite his wish to meet you. What a pity that this man has not had more support in his life!" 


Cézanne didn't let them down. Not only did he show, but he behaved memorably. In Geffroy's telling, "[Cézanne] gave evidence of the extent of his innocence -- or his confusion -- by taking Mirbeau and I aside to tell us, with tears in his eyes: 'He's not proud, Monsieur Rodin, he shook my hand! A decorated man!!!' Better still, after lunch, he knelt before Rodin, in the middle of the path, to thank him again for shaking his hand. Hearing things like this, one could only feel sympathy for the primitive soul of Cézanne, who was at that moment as sociable as he could be."


In Cezanne: A Life, British scholar Alex Danchev takes a skeptical look at the conventional wisdom about one of the nineteenth century's most revolutionary and influential artists. In the case of the Giverny lunch, for example, Danchev writes that "Geffroy's account has the flavor of a set piece, inspired perhaps by other set pieces." Specifically, he singles out Geffroy's use of the phrase "shy and violent" to describe Cézanne. As it happens, Émile Bernard used the same phrase in his own description of Cézanne meeting van Gogh -- a meeting that never took place. To Danchev, Cézanne was putting them on. Perhaps he was moved by Rodin's gesture, but such an outlandish display shouldn't be taken at face value. More than once Cézanne played the role of ridiculous country bumpkin. Monet, to his credit, recognized the act as the reflex of Cézanne's pride.


For most of his life Cézanne kept Paris and its art circles at arm's length. Instead, he preferred the light, color, and isolation of the landscape of his native Provence. For years the only audience he had was that of his peers, many of whom collected his works. Even then, they seemed to need his inspiration and challenge more than he needed their support. Monet hung his favorite Cézannes in the bedroom, where he came to know them intimately, and Madame Monet covered them up when her husband was struggling with his own work. Gauguin resolved that Cézanne was something of an Eastern mystic, and Renoir famously asked, "How does he do it? He can't put two strokes of color on a canvas without it already being very good." Cézanne's importance to the next generation of painters only grew -- his reputed ability to paint the "soul" of an apple or a sugar bowl became mythic. In 1899, the little-known Matisse purchased Cézanne's Three Bathers. He could hardly afford it at the time, and he "worshipped it in private for thirty-seven years," writes Danchev. To Picasso and Braque, Cézanne also presented lessons, not just about color but also about artistic temperament. "He melds his life in his work, the work in his life." The demand for biographical insight only increased. 


There was one person for whom Cézanne grew not in success but in disappointment. The most contentious aspect of Cézanne's biography is how it relates to Émile Zola's 1886 novel L'Oeuvre, about a failed painter named Claude Lantier who comes across a great deal like Cézanne himself. Because Cézanne and Zola were old friends from boyhood, L'Oeuvre has taken on the force of memoir. "Lantier's stunted sociability has entered the biographical bloodstream, so contaminating Cézanne's psychology (or pathology) that it has become something like received wisdom," writes Danchev. "In other words, the novel is the seedbed or breeding ground of the Cézanne of legend."  Although they'd planned early on to move to Paris and become artists together, life in the capital didn't inspire Cézanne in the same way, and they slowly grew apart. Zola used to declare his friend the greatest painter of his generation, until one day he started to ask, "Isn't he a failure?"


After the publication of L'Oeuvre, Cézanne and Zola never communicated again. Danchev doesn't dispute that the novel might have contributed to the rupture, but, he argues, there is little evidence that their split had so simplistic a cause, or even that Cézanne read Zola's book as an attack on himself: "Cézanne did not identify with Claude Lantier," he proclaims.

It's not surprising to find Danchev making the literary case -- he has a distracting habit of dropping quotes from Kafka and Beckett, among others -- but it's a compelling point, especially presented in the context of some of Cézanne's favorite novels and poems. Danchev reminds us again and again what a great reader Cézanne was -- of Virgil, Flaubert, Balzac, Baudelaire, and others. And in upending the accepted narrative about L'Oeuvre, he brings this to bear. Cézanne, he thinks, was too intelligent and sensitive for such a crude and one-sided reading. He wasn't only "capable of recognizing and accepting his fictional selves, he was also capable of distinguishing between art and life," writes Danchev. "He understood perfectly well that Zola was not writing his memoirs, but rather a cycle of novels, diligently planned and remorselessly plotted."


In any case, Zola didn't need to write a novel to display his capacity for cruelty toward his old friend. The last time Cézanne visited Zola in Paris, he found him surrounded by expensive furniture, art, and artifacts, but not a single one of his own paintings on the walls. It might have been the biggest betrayal of all.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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