CEZANNE: A LIFE
By Alex Danchev
Random House. 512pp. $40.
Alex Danchev’s biography of Cézanne, Cézanne: A Life, makes it clear that even as the painter’s reputation has risen, his art, like the man himself, remains mysterious, challenging, and impossible to pin down.
The story opens in 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, at the first retrospective exhibition of his work in Paris – in Danchev’s words, “the most consequential exhibition of modern times.” He explores in great detail the varied responses to this collection of paintings, from bafflement and scorn to “something close to a religious conversion,” undergone by the young poet Rilke. The paintings inspired psychiatric diagnoses of various kinds, and a legend had already grown up of the painter as disturbed, tormented, and plagued by “inquiètude” – anxiety or restlessness. Throughout the biography Danchev chips away at this calcified legend of Cézanne to reveal a thoughtful, humorous, and intellectually sophisticated figure. For a reader coming to the life with no particular preconceptions about the artist, these meticulous, often lengthy challenges to biographical orthodoxy can seem like digressions; however, Danchev conveys their importance through his lively and emphatic writing.
The most heartfelt work of recovery and correction focuses on Cézanne’s wife, Hortense, known to his friends as “La Boule” – the Dumpling. Of humble origins, not beautiful, and apparently not particularly sensitive to her husband’s talents and needs, Hortense had few defenders, and few friends, and was usually treated “with a degree of contempt.” Yet Danchev analyzes her two surviving letters, and more extensively, Cézanne’s multiple, multifaceted portraits of her, to arrive at a subtler picture of a sensitive, somewhat nervous, often sickly woman, who was certainly loyal and patient. Hortense bore the artist’s only child, his son Paul, and lived with him for seventeen years, largely kept secret from his family, before he finally made an honest woman of her in 1886.
The biography is broadly – though not strictly – chronological: Its chapters present periods in the artist’s life through themes such as “Le Papa,” “Anarchist Painting,” and “Non Finito,” sometimes revisiting material mentioned earlier from a different perspective. The story begins with Cézanne’s childhood in Aix-en-Provence, the son of “an archetypal self-made man,” a hatmaker turned banker, who was at best a grudging supporter of his son’s art. Once it was clear Paul was not cut out for the law studies his father insisted upon, Cézanne’s père agreed instead to give him a small allowance, just enough to survive in Paris as a student of painting. The move, though hard-won, was not permanent. Throughout his life Cézanne remained spiritually rooted in the southern soil of Provence, and never made any attempt to lose his nasal accent with its distinctive, thickly rolled “rrrrr”s.
The accent, his appetites, unrefined manners, and scruffy clothes contributed to the legend of Paul Cézanne as a passionate peasant, but in Danchev’s reading, Cézanne’s attachment to Aix and the surrounding countryside was also intellectual, deepened by his knowledge of its Roman past and by his youthful love of Latin poetry. His comrade in these early years of creative exploration was a younger schoolfellow with the odd name of Zola, whom Paul befriended when he defended him from bullies. The friendship of these “Inseparables,” as they called themselves, was a lifelong bond, although tested at the end by Émile’s success, conspicuous wealth, and habit of cultivating important people – and also by his habit of putting Paul, often unflatteringly, into his novels.
The story of Cézanne’s life is also the story of his friends and the creative community in which he lived, and the biography offers a detailed picture of these relationships, quoting at length from literature and letters to or about the painter and his work. Taking his cue from his subject, who was not deeply interested in politics or society beyond his own circle, Danchev touches only briefly on the tumultuous wider context of his life, particularly the violent upheaval of the Paris Commune of 1871. Although Cézanne was personally and artistically close to the anarchist Jewish painter Camille Pissarro – in a climate of virulent anti-Semitism – politics was always subordinated to art. Cézanne looked at the world by looking at the objects, sitter, or landscape in front of him, and was entirely consumed by the struggle to understand it through his brushstrokes, colors, lines, and planes.
Danchev is a persuasive and sensitive interpreter of Cézanne’s painting, and the chapters of the life are interspersed with analyses of five of the artist’s self-portraits, beginning with “The Desperado” – an intense, red-eyed figure, fired with ambition and just arrived in Paris – and ending with the final self-portrait, “The Inscrutable,” in which the artist appears physically diminished but still intensely self-searching, still seeking “the unvarnished truth.” It is during Cézanne’s final years, during which he was plagued by failing eyesight and the onset of diabetes, that he produced many of his greatest works, in a creative raging against the dying of the light. He died as he lived, as he had always wished: painting in the hills of Provence.
The book includes eighty-six color plates and many more sketches and photographs to support its portrait of the artist as a self-directed and restless seeker after his own, unique kind of truth, which his admirers and detractors alike struggled to understand: “He seemed not to see as others saw, but slant.”