It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred- fifty sittings for a portrait. What we call his work was, for him, an attempt, an approach to painting. In September of 1906, at the age sixty-seven—one month before his death—he wrote: “I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak reason would not survive…. Now it seems I am better that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking. Will I arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued? I am working from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress”. 

Painting was his world and his mode of existence. He worked alone without students, without admiration from his family, without encouragement from the critics. He painted on the afternoon of the day his mother died. In 1870 he was painting at l’Estaque while the police were after him for dodging the draft. And still he had moments of doubt about this vocation.

As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes, whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body. The hesitation or muddle-headedness of his contemporaries equaled this strain and doubt. “The painting of a drunken privy cleaner,” said a critic in 1905. Even today, C. Mauclair finds Cezanne’s admissions of powerlessness an argument against him. Meanwhile, Cezanne’s paintings have spread throughout the world. Why so much uncertainty, so much labor. so many failures, and, suddenly, the greatest success?

Zola, Cezanne’s friend from childhood, was the first to find genius in him and the first to speak of him as a “genius gone wrong.” An observer of Cezanne’s life such as Zola, more concerned with his character than with the meaning of his painting, might well consider it a manifestation of ill-health.

For as far back as 1852, upon entering the College Bourbon at Aix, Cezanne worried his friends with his fits of temper and depression. Seven years later, having decided to become an artist, he doubted his talent and did not dare to ask his father—a hatter and later a banker—to send him to Paris. Zola’s letters reproach him for his instability, his weakness, and his indecision. When finally he came to Paris, he wrote:

“The only thing I have changed is my location: my ennui has followed me.” He could not tolerate discussions, because they wore him out and he could never give his reasoning. His nature was basically anxious. Thinking that he would die young, he made his will at the age of forty-two; at forty-six he was for six months the victim of a violent, tormented, overwhelming passion of which no one knows the outcome and to which he would never refer.

At fifty-one he withdrew to Aix, where he found the landscape best suited to his genius but where also he returned to the world of his childhood, his mother and his sister. After the death of his mother, Cezanne turned to his son for support. “Life is terrifying,” he would often say. Religion, which he then set about practicing for the first time, began for him in the fear of life and the fear of death. “It is fear,” he explained to a friend; “I feel I will be on earth for another four days—what then?

I believe in life after death, and I don’t want to risk roasting in aeternum.” Although his religion later deepened, its original motivation was the need to put his life in order and be relieved of it. He became more and more timid, mistrustful, and sensitive. Occasionally he would visit Paris, but when he ran into friends he would motion to them from a distance not to approach him. In 1903, after his pictures had begun to sell in Paris at twice the price of Monet’s and when young men like Joachim Gasquet and Emile Bernard came to see him and ask him questions, he unbent a little. But his fits of anger continued. (In Aix a child once hit him as he passed by; after that he could not bear any contact.)

One day when Cezanne was quite old, Emile Bernard steadied him as he stumbled. Cezanne flew into a rage. He could be heard striding around his studio and shouting that he wouldn’t let anybody “get his hooks into me.” Because of these “hooks” he pushed women who could have modeled for him out of his studio, priests, whom he called “pests,” out of his life, and Emile Bernard’s theories out of his mind, when they became too insistent.

This loss of flexible human contact; this inability to master new situations; this flight into established habits, in an atmosphere that presented no problems; this rigid opposition between theory and practice between the “hook” and the freedom of a recluse—all these symptoms permit one to speak of a morbid constitution and more precisely, for example, in the case of El Greco, of schizothymia. The notion of painting “from nature” could be said to arise from the same weakness. His extremely close attention to nature and to color, the inhuman character in his paintings (he said that a face should be painted as an object) his devotion to the visible world: all of these would then only represent a flight from the human world, the alienation of his humanity.

These conjectures nevertheless do not give any idea of the positive side of his work; one cannot thereby conclude that his painting is a phenomenon of decadence and what Nietzsche called “impoverished life or that it has nothing to say to the educated person. Zola’s and Emile Bernard’s belief in Cezanne’s failure probably arises from their having put too much emphasis on psychology and their personal knowledge of Cezanne. It is nonetheless possible that Cezanne conceived a form of art which, while occasioned by his nervous condition, is valid for everyone. Left to himself, he was able to look at nature as only a human being can. The meaning of his work cannot be determined from his life.

This meaning will not become any clearer in the light of art history—that is, by considering influences (the Italian school and Tintoretto, Delacroix, Courbet, and the impressionists), Cezanne’s technique or even his own pronouncements on his work.

His first pictures—up to about 1870—are painted fantasies: a rape, a murder. They are therefore almost always executed in broad strokes and present the moral physiognomy of the actions rather than their visible aspect. It is thanks to the impressionists, and particularly to Pissarro, that Cezanne later conceived painting not as the incarnation of imagined scenes, the projection of dreams outward, but as the exact study of appearances: less a work of the studio than a working from nature. Thanks to the impressionists, he abandoned the baroque technique, whose primary aim is to capture movement, for small dabs placed close together and for patient hatching.

He quickly parted ways with the impressionists, however. Impressionism was trying to capture, in the painting, the very way in which objects strike our eyes and attack our senses. Objects were depicted as they appear to instantaneous perception, without fixed contours, bound together by light and air. To capture this envelope of light, one had to exclude siennas, ochres, and black and use only the seven colors of the spectrum.

The color of objects could not be represented simply by putting on the canvas their local tone, that is, the color they take on isolated from their surroundings; one also had to pay attention to the phenomena of contrast which modify local colors in nature. Furthermore, by a sort of reversal, every color we perceive in nature elicits the appearance of its complement; and these complementaries heighten one another. To achieve sunlit colors in a picture that will be seen in the dim light of apartments, not only must there be a green—if you are painting grass— but also the complementary red which will make it vibrate. Finally, the impressionists break down the local tone itself.

One can generally obtain any color by juxtaposing rather than mixing the colors that make it up, thereby achieving a more vibrant hue. The result of these procedures was that the canvas—which no longer corresponded point by point to nature—afforded a generally true impression through the action of the separate parts upon one another. But at the same time, depicting the atmosphere and breaking up the tones submerged the object and caused it to lose its proper weight.

The composition of Cezanne’s palette leads one to suppose that he had another aim. Instead of the seven colors of the spectrum, one finds eighteen colors—six reds, five yellows, three blues, three greens, and black. The use of warm colors and black shows that Cezanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. Likewise, he does not, break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object’s form and to the light it receives. Doing away with exact contours in certain cases, giving color priority over the outline— these obviously mean different things for Cezanne and for the impressionists.

The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects: it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance. Moreover, Cezanne does not give up making the warm colors vibrate but achieves this chromatic sensation through the use of blue.

One must therefore say that Cezanne wished to return to the object without abandoning the impressionist aesthetics which takes nature as its model. Emile Bernard reminded him that, for the classical artists, painting demanded outline, composition, and distribution of light. Cezanne replied: “They created pictures; we are attempting a piece of nature.” He said of the old masters that they “replaced reality with imagination and by the abstraction which accompanies it.” Of nature, he said, “the artist must conform to this perfect work of art. Everything comes to us from nature; we exist through it; nothing else is worth remembering.”
He stated that he wanted to make of impressionism “something solid like the art in the museums.”

His painting was paradoxical: he was pursuing reality without giving up the sensuous surface, with no other guide than the immediate impression of nature, without following the contours, with no outline to enclose the color, with no perspectival or pictorial arrangement. This is what Bernard called Cezanne’s suicide: aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it.


This is the reason for his difficulties and for the distortions one finds in his pictures between 1870 and 1890. Cups and saucers on a table seen from the side should be elliptical, but Cezanne paints the two ends of the ellipse swollen and expanded. The work table in his portrait of Gustave Geffroy stretches, contrary to the laws of perspective, into the lower part of picture.

In giving up the outline Cezanne was abandoning himself to chaos of sensation, which would upset the objects and constantly suggest illusions, as, for example, the illusion we have when we move our heads that objects themselves are moving—if our judgment did not constantly set these appearances straight. According to Bernard, Cezanne “submerged his painting in ignorance and his mind in shadows.” But one cannot really judge his painting in this way except by closing one’s mind to half of what he said and one’s eyes to what he painted.