Paul Cezanne sculpts his father on canvas

Young artists fairly often paint near relations: mothers, sisters, and, in Paul Cezanne's case, his father and an uncle.

By the time this portrait was painted at the large family home in Aix, France, Cezanne's father - no less a forceful individual than his artist son - had finally forsaken any idea of Paul's becoming a banker (like himself) or even a lawyer.

But Paul himself was still just beginning to emerge from his initial confusion as an artist. He was swinging between fierce ambition and frustrated self-doubt. His childhood friend Emile Zola (who was to contribute art criticism to the newspaper Cezanne's father is shown - perhaps skeptically - reading) had written of him five years earlier: "Paul may have the genius of a great painter, but he will never have the genius to become one. The least obstacle makes him despair."

Cezanne's subsequent achievements were to prove how vastly wrong Zola's prognostication was, however justified it may have been at the time.

Many of Cezanne's early paintings are marked by a baroque romanticism. In some of them, he deliberately shocked the conventional art world with a painterly virility that was too easily ridiculed as incompetence.

But this bold portrait - and the actual still life on the wall behind the thronelike chair - foretold a quite different Cezanne. It is painted almost sculpturally with a palette knife, as are many of his early works. But it amounts to a determined, clearly stated investigation of forms and spaces. Cezanne describes these as planes relatively near to, or far from, the eye. This was to become a major preoccupation in his mature work.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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