What links French post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne with phenomenological philosophy? The answer is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Just in case you’re not familiar with Merleau-Ponty or if you haven’t read any of his work, we’ll go over a little information about his background. Merleau-Ponty was a French philosopher who lived between 1908 and 1961 and who was strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was closely associated with contemporaries like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and is renowned for his contributions to existentialism and phenomenological philosophy, which emphasises the study of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.

So what does all this have to do with Cézanne? Well, in 1945 Merleau-Ponty wrote and published an essay about Cézanne titled Cézanne’s Doubt, in which he analysed Cézanne’s stylistic approach to painting as well as his beliefs about how to paint. The essay begins by covering various aspects of Cézanne’s character and temperament. It discusses the fact that Cézanne would obsess over his works – a still life would take him 100 sessions to complete, a portrait would take him 150 sessions and he would sometimes take hours to place even a single brushstroke on his canvas. Painting was his life’s obsession and as the essay says, “He painted on the afternoon of the day his mother died. In 1870 he was painting at l’Estaque while the police were after him for dodging the draft”.

Despite this apparent evidence that painting was his vocation, Cézanne was a man who was constantly plagued by questioning and self-doubt over his chosen profession. He was troubled by fits of temper and depression from an early age, and although he was friends with Émile Zola and was influenced by Camille Pissarro, he struggled to maintain close relationships that Merleau-Ponty said resulted in the “inhuman character of his paintings”. Cézanne’s early paintings, until around 1870, were vivid fantasies and scenes from his imagination, depicting subjects like rape and murder, often executed in broad brushstrokes. It was Pissarro’s influence that convinced Cézanne to paint not from his imagination, but to paint what he saw, and while Cézanne adhered to this for the rest of career, morbid themes remained evident in his work. According to Merleau-Ponty’s assessment of Cézanne’s themes and his social behaviours and tendencies, he may have been schizophrenic.

Merleau-Ponty continues by analysing Cézanne’s painting technique – his revolutionary use and application of perspective, the optical effects and phenomena that he utilised, the composition of his colour palette and the philosophical approach that he took towards the creation of his work. This analysis forms the main body of the 11 page essay, and we’re not going to reproduce it here, but for Cézanne enthusiasts, Cézanne’s Doubt is certainly worth a read. Merleau-Ponty’s essay concludes with what many fans of Cézanne will already be aware of – that Cézanne painted life as he perceived it. As the painter himself said, “Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organise into a painting.”