For an artist who died more than a century ago, Paul Cezanne has a way of feeling perpetually new. He was an artistic nomad, both within and outside the Impressionist movement du jour—and a literal one, too, shuffling between Paris and his native Aix-en-Provence. After his death in 1906, his name became a Modernist rallying cry, his works zealously collected by artists like Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro.
A new retrospective currently in transit from the Art Institute of Chicago (ending Sept. 5) to the Tate Modern (Oct. 5, 2022 to Mar. 12, 2023) builds on these truisms while illuminating less widely known biographical details about this iconoclastic artist. You’ll notice a big one right out of the gate: The exhibition spells Cezanne’s name without the accent over the first “E,” just as he signed it. The accented “É,” curators argue, would have been a holdover from a more urbane Parisian dialect; Cezanne’s own lack of written accent reflects his allegiance to the Provençal dialect of the era. (We’ll stylize the artist’s name the same way here.)
Below are 10 emblematic artworks by Cezanne included in the retrospective, as selected by exhibition curators.
The Artist's Father, Reading “L’Événement” (1866)
For much of his career, Cezanne wasn’t drawn to large-scale canvases. The exception to this rule is a famous one: his three Les Grandes Baigneuses, found in his studio after his death (see No. 8 below). After Les Grandes Baigneuses, however, his largest painting was this early portrait of his father Louis-Auguste Cezanne, brow furrowed and sitting awkwardly akilter in a drab armchair.
It might have been the most confessional painting Cezanne ever created. Despite offering his son financial support and building him a studio at Bastide du Jas de Bouffan (see below), Louis-Auguste disapproved of Cezanne’s artistic pursuits, and the relationship between the two remained rocky all of Cezanne’s life. This painting both reflects the tension between the two and yearns, futilely, for its redemption: Louis-Auguste’s back is turned to Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup (1865–70), a then-recent still life painted by Cezanne, and he is reading L’Événement, a short-lived newspaper that championed French Impressionism early on. In reality, Louis-Auguste subscribed to another publication.
“Cezanne is enthroning his father, but at the same time he’s inserting himself,” says Gloria Groom, European painting and sculpture chair at the Art Institute and one of the lead curators of “Cezanne.”
The Avenue at the Jas de Bouffan (c. 1874–1875)
By the time this painting was created, Cezanne was well under Impressionism’s spell. Nonetheless, he reprised the thick impasto strokes of his earlier landscapes of the 1860s to render the road from his family’s aforementioned manor, lined with chestnut trees and framed by a thick thatch of grass in the right-hand foreground.
About that thatch: It’s a figment of Cezanne’s imagination. In the spot where Cezanne would have been standing, looking away from the house, the family’s pool would have been visible—a feature that has “all the trimmings of bourgeois lifestyle, with carvings of lions and a fountain,” according to Tate curator Natalia Sidlina. Cezanne redacted the chi-chi amenity, rendering the scene closer to the landscape garden ideal that had taken hold earlier in the Romantic period.
Auvers, Panoramic View (1873–1875)
Auvers-sur-Oise, northwest of Paris, became something of an artists’ mecca in the 19th century thanks to Dr. Paul Gachet, a physician who was an early booster of the Impressionists. He lived in the white, towerlike building to the upper left of this composition, which Cezanne painted during his first long stay in Auvers at Pissarro’s invitation. Cezanne’s decision to paint this locale would have signaled his proximity to Impressionist insiders.
Appropriately for the setting, Cezanne seems freer to experiment here than in previous work. “It’s clear something’s clicked for Cezanne. He’s finding a new, more constructive way of assembling a picture and putting marks on the surface,” observes Caitlin Haskell, modern and contemporary art curator at the Art Institute. “Within this one canvas, there are maybe seven different approaches to applying paint, and there are portions of the rooflines where you see these angled structures beginning to interlock with each other.”
The Bather (1885)
Like The Artist’s Father, this bather is a rare example of a large-scale canvas that depicts a single figure, this one taken from an earlier work by Cezanne, Bathers at Rest (1876–77).
According to Haskell, creating a “truly monumental” rendering of this otherwise ordinary-looking figure radically fused Classical and Realist tropes of the time. “It’s not an especially heroic posture. There’s a little bit of irony or paradox between this everyday person and [the painting’s] grand scale,” Haskell says.
We also know that Cezanne based this figure on a photograph instead of a live model. It’s yet more evidence of his embrace of the technological vanguards changing artistic production at the time, which included mail-order tube paints, primed canvases, and collapsible easels.
The Smoker (1890)
At the time this portrait was completed, Cezanne had left Paris for Aix, where his art likewise took a conservative, bucolic tilt. He turned to local day laborers as new subjects—including his anonymous man, who also seems to appear in Cezanne’s The Card Players (1890–92).
However, Groom stresses that Cezanne’s “conservatism” during this period extended only to genre, not to execution. The intimacy of this single-figure portrait only emphasizes this painting’s subtly fantastical qualities, like the figure’s somewhat contrived pose; the odd angle of the surface on which he’s leaning; and flecks in the backdrop and the subject’s clothing where Cezanne “refuses to add one more stroke of color.”
“Nothing really works like a Realist portrait,” Groom says. “The end result is that this man does not have a resting place—he’s not really positioned in a way that could possibly exist in real life.”
Still Life with Apples (1893–1894)
In his later still lifes, Cezanne recruited a rotating “cast” of subjects: a green vase, a rum bottle, a ginger pot, a bevy of apples. His still lifes reached their apotheosis in the 1890s, echoing the subtle impossibilities of his other works from the period. To Groom, this specimen, painted at home in Aix, seems particularly “hard-won.”
“There’s this incredible intensity of focus—almost Pictorialist, almost Surrealist Realism,” she says. “He makes these fabrics almost topographical, borrowing from the way he treats landscapes, with these deep crevices and exaggerated mountains and quarries. Look at the white tablecloth, which you see again and again, with those cavernous curves and impossible folds. Cloth doesn’t just do that.”
That miraculousness extends to other parts of the composition, as well. “The apples can’t possibly stay the way they are, tilted up. Nothing can stay.”
Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry (c. 1895–1899)
This canvas combines two central fixations in Cezanne’s landscapes: the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the limestone ridge visible from Cezanne’s home in Aix-en-Provence, and the nearby Bibémus Quarry, a defunct ochre mining site. It is painted from an almost subterranean perspective, looking up at the peak behind the overgrown vermillion stone walls of the quarry.
The painting was exhibited at Cezanne’s first posthumous retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907, just a year after his death. The impact was explosive. “It is arguably one of the most important exhibitions in all of the 20th century, because it’s really a turning point,” says Haskell, of the Art Institute. “Within a very short period of time, you’re already starting to see indications of things like Cubism taking place in the work of other avant-garde artists, namely Picasso and Georges Braque.”
Les Grandes Baigneuses (c. 1894–1905)
Of Cezanne’s many studies of reclining nudes bathing, which he worked on over the course of seven to ten years, this painting is the most famous. Held by the National Gallery in London, it is thought to be the first Cezanne made on the subject.
Recent research shows that some of this canvas was painted wet-on-wet, which means paint layers were applied rather speedily. “By immediately applying a brand-new coating to the paint before it dries, it creates bumps on the surface,” says Sidlina, the Tate curator.
The same research seems to indicate that Cezanne changed the size of his canvases numerous times over the course of the series. “For an artist who was a true child of the Impressionist revolution and liked to work from ready-made canvases, tampering with the canvas itself on this scale meant that it was key for him to get the dimensions and proportions he wanted—so much so that he didn’t mind that you can see where the canvases were added to, or where the margins were,” Sidlina says.
The Three Skulls (1902–1906)
In his later career, Cezanne turned to watercolors nearly as often as he did oils—rare for a medium long relegated to the realm of preliminary studies. We can see firsthand how he prized both mediums in this watercolor, which has an oil analogue (Three Skulls on a Patterned Carpet, 1904).
The Three Skulls is uncommonly large for a watercolor; that, coupled with the plethora of skulls Cezanne painted in the last years of his life, might encourage viewers to assume Cezanne was fixated on his own mortality. But Haskell points out that skulls were not only an old subject for Cezanne (he painted Still Life with Skull, Candle and Book as early as 1866) but an old subject in art, with obvious antecedents in Dutch still life traditions. Nor was Cezanne ailing or otherwise preoccupied with his own impending death.
So, call it a morbid coincidence, if a beautiful one. “It truly is a memento mori, but it’s luminous, colorful, and wonderful to look at,” Haskell says.
The Gardener Vallier (c. 1906)
Like Les Grandes Baigneuses, The Gardener Vallier was discovered in Cezanne’s studio when he died. It was one of the last paintings Cezanne worked on, and almost certainly the last portrait. It’s one of six portraits Cezanne painted of his gardener and handyman at Jas de Bouffan—works that, even taken alone, demonstrate Cezanne’s extraordinary aesthetic and technical breadth.
This radical portrait marks a watershed for not only its tilt toward abstraction but also Cezanne’s observations of natural light. For much of his life, he’d painted his sitters indoors, where the space and conditions could be tightly controlled; here, Vallier sits under a lime tree that still stands outside Cezanne’s studio. This work is rendered in oil, but the strokes are light and airy; it bears a far closer resemblance to the watercolor portrait Cezanne created of Vallier around the same time, seemingly on the same chair and similarly allowing the canvas to become part of the composition.
Do the blanks imply Cezanne wasn’t finished with the works? Perhaps; but Sidlina cautions against us from assuming such. After all, we’re talking about an artist whose approach to the canvas was much more profound.
“Cezanne would talk about “les sensations” and “les réalisations,” or the fulfillment of those sensations. And for him, realized artwork was not necessarily considered every bit of canvas covered,” Sidlina says. “Everything was completed work; everything was realized work.”