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September 24, 2012
Moments in Art
How Long To Paint a Necktie?
by Lawrence Jeppson

In 1889, famed art dealer Ambroise Vollard asked Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) to paint his portrait. Fortunately Vollard, who was a native of Reunion Island, had extreme un-French patience. After the 115th sitting Cézanne interrupted the silence between the two men to announce, finally, “Well, I am not too unhappy with the front of the shirt.”

He would take hours to put down a single stroke. He was capturing moments in time that could not be recaptured. He worked in very small strokes, and each had to be exactly right. He would take 100 working sessions to do a still life, 150 for a portrait.

If Cézanne painted slowly at times, his career developed no faster.

Not even Van Gogh fought a more bitter fight for acceptance. Cézanne evolved from Impressionism. Using complex planes of color, he saw objects as cylinders, spheres, cones. Though Monet may be more popular, no artist had wider influence. He was a painter’s painter. He opened doors leading artists into new paths, especially Cubism.

When I showed photographs of some landscapes by Jean Marzelle (1916-2005), which I was circulating in an exhibition, the head of the Guggenheim Museum in New York said to me, “Those brush strokes show the influence of Cézanne.” When he saw a crease cross my brow he quickly added, “That’s not a criticism.”

At the age of 10, Cézanne took drawing lessons from a Spanish monk. At 12, he was enrolled in a boarding school, where he met and befriended Emile Zola (who became France’s most popular novelist) and Baptistin Baille, who would become a professor of optics. They were called the Three Inseparables. They swam together in the river — scenes Cézanne would later recapture and adapt for many of his paintings. The friendships carried into adult years.

Cézanne’s father was a prosperous banker. Because his father insisted, Paul studied law for two years at the University of Aix. He also took drawing lessons. This worked, sort of, but Zola was encouraging him to give it up and come to Paris and study art. In 1861, his mother and sister enabled him to do just that, but a few months later he gave up the dream and went home. He felt he had no real ability.

But he was impelled back to Paris and art a year later, then back to Aix in a state of crisis two years after that. Then back to Paris, but not forever. Born in southern sunlit Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne found there his inspiration and his solitude.

Despite Cézanne’s friendship with Zola and painters Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir, success eluded him.

Year after year, important shows refused him. No one would buy him. Several times he gave up art entirely, but he was a genius, and art was his gift, and he was always forced back to it: by love, by drive, by calling, and by unmatched understanding of what new and glorious paths painting could take.

Zola praised him. Yet later Zola called Cézanne “an aborted genius” and made use of him as a character in a bad novel. Their friendship ended. In 1903, Zola’s estate came up for auction. Critic Henri Rochefort wrote a newspaper article, “Love for the Ugly,” reporting how viewers broke into laughing fits when looking at Zola’s Cézannes.

The battles between Cézanne and the juries of the French artists’ salons lasted all his life. When he was 46, one salon finally accepted one painting. This did not happen again until he was 60. Finally, when he was 65, the Autumn Salon accorded him a whole room.

During his lifetime he had only two one-man commercial gallery shows, one at Nadar’s when he was 35 and the other at Vollard’s when he was 56. Neither was successful.

How did he live? He survived due to modest support from his father and various friends along the way. However, when his father died in 1886, Cézanne inherited an estate of 400,000 francs, a fortune.

Recognition finally came. A year after his death, the Autumn Salon gave him a big retrospective. Sadly, a Cézanne holds the world’s record for the highest price paid for a work of art. He painted several versions of The Card Players. In 2011, one of them changed hands privately for somewhere between 250 and 300 million dollars.


Paul Cézanne, Card Players, (5th version), d’Orsay museum, Paris. I first saw and admired this painting in the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, June, 1949.

Copyright © 2022 by Lawrence Jeppson Printed from NauvooTimes.com