Cézanne is not an easy man to love, but professors and painters adore him. Art critics lavish him with superlatives, including "a prophet of the 20th century," "the most sensitive painter of his time," "the greatest artist of the 19th century," and "the father of modern art." But he's not quite a household name, and his posters have never been best-sellers at museum shops around the world. In fact, most non-professionals wouldn't stand a chance of recognising a Cézanne unless it was clearly labelled. Even then, there's no guarantee of appeal.
Not that poster sales determine an artist's stature, but they do reveal something about the accessibility of his work. Cézanne's pictures are restrained, impersonal and remote -- they don't have the gut-wrenching appeal of van Gogh's portraits, even before he cut off part of his ear. They can't compete with Monet's lush expanses of waterlilies or Renoir's sensuous women with their come-hither looks. And let's face it, bowls of fruit and the hills and trees of Provence, where Cézanne spent most of his life, are a hard sell against the Tahitian backdrops of Gauguin, with or without the naked women.
Cézanne is an artist's artist. He was obsessed with form rather than content, so subject matter was always secondary to the act of painting itself. He wanted the methods and skills of the painter to be more important than the image. That meant the subject of the painting couldn't be so dynamic as to overshadow the artist's act of creation. The more he concentrated on this, the less viewer-friendly his works became. But that suited his personality just fine. His goal was not to have a mass audience or sales appeal, it was to satisfy himself.
Cézanne was a brooding, complex man, given to rages, grudges and depressions. He had few friends, and those he had he alienated. Even when success finally caught up with him, he was dogged by feelings of inadequacy. The most famous of his friends was his schoolmate and writer Emile Zola, who was everything Cézanne wasn't -- charming, eloquent, sociable and successful at an early age. Zola was art critic, novelist and Cézanne's mentor. The artist looked at him for strength but gave nothing in return. Zola got tired of placating Cézanne's ego, and in later years, when Zola wrote The Masterpiece of an unfulfilled artist who eventually killed himself, Cézanne was convinced that the author had him in mind. He was so egocentric and so paranoid, he assumed everyone would know Zola was writing about him. The reality was that no one knew about him at all, but the novel still destroyed their friendship.
It's hard to imagine that the man who created such restrained, methodical, time-consuming works had a violent, volatile temper. Painting was his salvation, a way to balance the fires within. Rather than let his personality shine in his art -- that scared him too much -- he suppressed it. A psychoanalyst would have had a field day with Cézanne. In spite of his bourgeois background, he was a primitive, with rough edges and no table manners -- although he did improve somewhat after he met Hortense. He worked in virtual seclusion and seldom ventured out. He was such a recluse that one critic doubted his existence. When Cézanne finally did attend a show of his paintings, he was amazed that the gallery had bothered to frame them. Even when he finally enjoyed both success and sales he remained riddled with self-doubt.
Cézanne was versatile; in his pursuit of perfection and a unique style, he experimented a lot. Art students often copy paintings -- you still see them in museums with their sketchbooks -- and Cézanne did just that, but unlike most, he never stopped copying. To him, it was an important form of discipline and inspiration. He felt he could understand art better through copying, and whenever he came to an impasse, he went off to the nearest museum, sketchbook in hand.
His earliest works, from his first days in Paris, are expressionistic, with their impasto paint surface, broad use of the palette knife, and brooding intensity. He took out his frustrations on the canvas. In the early 1870s, he experimented with Impressionism. He tried to combine the principles of light and air-based art with a more structured pictorial style. After that, he delved into Classicism, with more balanced and formal compositions. Toward the end of his life, he was at his most daring, reducing architecture and figures to geometric forms and paving the way for Cubism.