Finding the man in his work

Our own century doesn't have exclusive rights to bursts of rebellion against entrenched artistic conventions. Cezanne's early paintings in the middle of the last century are certainly that. Even today they can stir a little incomprehension in art historians and critics. Of his portraits of his uncle Dominique, made between 1865 and 1867, Frank Elgar, for instance, has written: " [They] are . . . clumsy and look as though they had been painted with a trowel."

According to Zola it was the "Salon des Refuses" in Paris in 1863 which had really roused his friend Cezanne. This was an exhibition authorized by Napoleon III in response to protests from artists, including Manet, Fantin- Latour and Pissaro, whose work had been rejected by the official Salon jury. But even the general public ridiculed these works, resulting, Zola wrote, in a "warlike atmosphere" which "put new life into [Cezanne]. . . . He listened to the swelling laughter of the crowd with a look on his face as defiant as if he were listening to the whistle of bullets."

Cezanne's character, though, was a complex mixture. He was later to evolve into a very different kind of painter, and even at this time a retiring sense of self-doubt was mingled with his energetic outrage. He had acute uncertainties about the success of his early works, but not, apparently, when he was actually painting them. "The docile uncle Dominique," Jack Lindsay has written, sat for his nephew "day after day, a new image emerging each time." He goes on to describe these portraits as "slashed in with much fury and skill." The uncompromising buildup of paint, plastered and swirled and loaded onto the canvas, the monumentally bold contrast of light and dark, the vigorous presenting of his uncle's head as though it could be as tangibly real in paint as it was in fact -- none of this hints at diffidence or hesitation. Here was a young painter taking the romanticism of Delacroix to extremes, as well as the realism of Courbet, the quick painterliness of Manet, and the sculptural weightiness of Daumier, all within the limited space of a small canvas and prompted by nothing more than the bearded and inwardly evasive features of his docile relative.

Here, if anywhere, appears to be painting without respect for academic rules and norms, painting impatiently careless of everything except inner compulsion. The paint has taken on its own life, a life which has little to do with the subject, and much to do with the artist's temperament.

On the face of it there is such a large difference between the early works of Cezanne and his later ones that they scarcely seem to be by the same artist. His mature paintings are exhaustively worked, not hasty and spontaneous; are rootedly concerned with the relationship of subject and picture; patiently explore the irresolute contours of the visible world rather than dramatize its unavoidable factuality, as in "Oncle Dominique." But looking more intently, one can see that these early paintings were perhaps rather more deliberate and considered than first appears -- and that the later paintings, for all their subtle colour modulations and contained hesitancies, never abandon the bold sculptural realities of the first Cezannes.

What Zola wrote about art in the mid-1860s evidently comes very close to Cezanne's thinking. Such statements as: "I have the profoundest disdain for small clevernesses, for interested flatteries, for what study has been able to learn and a tenacious labour has made familiar" might be the verbal equivalent of the paint on Cezanne's canvases. Zola also wrote: "What I ask of the artist is . . . to make a lofty affirmation of a powerful and particular spirit." And "What I seek before everything else, in a picture, is a man and not a picture."

Nevertheless it is interesting that Monet said Cezanne placed a black hat and a white handkerchief beside his models in the 1860s, so that he knew precisely the polarities of bright and dark between which his strongly contrasted images could be realized. He apparently felt the need to concentrate on tonal values at this period, rather than colour. Wayne Andersen makes the point that "to this period belongs the only drawing on which he wrote [that] the name of a colour was 'blanc.'" Something technicalm was going on in his art, as well as a fierce, rebellious impulse.

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