A Bohemian Artist Comes to Life

Biographer captures the essential Cezanne through his letters

Cezanne: A Biography

By John Rewald,

Henry Abrams (published in 1986, rereleased in 1996)

288 pp., with illustrations, $75.

Paul Cezanne's enormous artistic achievements are the subject of this summer's blockbuster art exhibition, a huge retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The largest showing of Cezanne's work since 1906, it has the critics buzzing.

To commemorate the Philadelphia exhibition, Abrams has re-released John Rewald's "Cezanne: A Biography." Rewald, a Swiss-born scholar who spent his career in the United States, based the book on his 1936 doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne. Initially a study of the relationship between Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, Rewald later revised the book and shifted the focus to Cezanne alone.

Born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, Paul Cezanne formed a friendship in childhood with Zola that became the most important relationship of his life. Cezanne joined Zola in Paris in 1861 and first came to the public's attention when he participated in the first and third Impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and 1877. His work was singled out for some of the harshest criticism meted out by the reviewers. "A sort of madman who paints in delirium," sniffed one critic.

Stung by the attacks, Cezanne withdrew to Provence and almost never exhibited in Paris for the next 20 years. But when he retreated to Aix, Cezanne's mature style began to emerge and the differences with his Impressionist friends became fully apparent. Where the Impressionists painted subjectively, interpreting reality as it appeared to their eyes in various lights, Cezanne sought to portray the world objectively, without the intervening influence of the senses. To Cezanne, structure was everything. To the Impressionists, the key ingredient was the ever-changing light.

Also unlike the Impressionists who continued to use perspective to give their paintings depth, Cezanne used subtle variations of color to create a sense of perspective.

Rewald tells Cezanne's story largely by analyzing the voluminous correspondence between Cezanne and Zola. Initially, Zola was a source of support and encouragement for Cezanne and other avant garde artists. But by the 1880s, Zola began to criticize the Impressionists for not living up to their promise.

In 1886, Cezanne broke with Zola over "L'Ouvre" (The Masterpiece), the story of an unfulfilled painter whose frustrations lead to madness and suicide. Believing himself to be the central character in the tragedy, Czanne acknowledged receiving the book but never spoke to his friend again. Yet when Zola died suddenly in 1902, Cezanne was disconsolate.

Cezanne was not a likable fellow. Even among his fellow Impressionists, he was regarded as beyond the pale. Manet called him "a joke." According to Rewald, Cezanne was moody and arrogant. He could be violent and had a deep fear of physical contact - to the point of threatening those who accidentally touched him. His language was coarse and his behavior could be vulgar. He neglected his personal appearance. As he aged, he became a recluse.

But Rewald makes clear that it was Cezanne's isolation in Aix and his penchant for painting the same subject repeatedly that enabled him to flourish. Because he went far beyond the Impressionists, Cezanne had no colleagues he could turn to for ideas or inspiration. By devoting himself to a small number of themes - portraits of his wife, still lifes, and above all, the landscape of Provence - Cezanne could experiment with his art.

Initially writing in the 1930s, Rewald interviewed artists who knew Cezanne personally. Quoting from the letters extensively, Rewald lets the evidence speak for itself. Yet the story is carefully and smoothly knit together.

The book is enriched because Rewald spent long hours tramping around the countryside to photograph the actual scenes that Cezanne painted. Today, of course, the sites are unrecognizable, so Rewald's photographs are an invaluable clue in understanding the origins of Cezanne's landscapes. In addition, Rewald visited Cezanne's abandoned studio in the early 1930s and, amazingly, found it much as the artist had left it. Some of the photos that Rewald took of the studio are also included in the book.

This volume is clearly aimed at the general reader. Footnotes and other scholarly trappings are largely absent, and the book is free of the pomposity that one often finds in art history. It is a superb biography with lavish illustrations, including many of Cezanne's less well known paintings, written in a straightforward style that makes it ideal for the general public.

*Terry Hartle is vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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