Paul Cezanne Biography

Paul CezanneThe life of Paul Cezanne wasn't always happy. He wasn't accepted into the prestigious art schools he applied to. His works were harshly judged by critics and laughed at by his peers. His best friend wrote a book, disparaging Cezanne as a painter. Despite this unhappiness, Cezanne forged on, working to teach himself about art and find a way to express his unique vision. He is widely seen as one of the most important painters of the 20th century; his contributions helped to usher in abstraction in art.

Youth and Education

Paul Cezanne was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence. Cezanne's father was a successful banker, and would provide wealth and security for Cezanne throughout his life. In 1852, Cezanne enrolled in the College Bourbon, where he met Emile Zola. The two would become friends, and spend evenings discussing how Cezanne's paintings and Zola's writings would change the Paris art scene.

In 1856, Cezanne began to study drawing at the Aix Museum. To please the elder Cezanne, Paul also studied law during this time. In 1861, Cezanne convinced his father to allow him to study art on a full-time basis. He traveled to Paris and applied to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, his application was denied. Cezanne was full of doubt, and returned home to Aix the following year. He began to study painting independently, traveling to Paris on occasion to study works at the Louvre. He copied many of these paintings in his notebooks, so he could learn how they were executed, and how he might improve upon them one day. He continued his friendship with Zola, and though him, met many painters including Renoir, Monet and Manet.

Early Career

Paintings by Cezanne in his early period are eerie and slightly awkward. In The Abduction from 1867, dark trees dominate the canvas. Two human figures wrestle in the center of the image, one dark and one light. While the brushstrokes are obvious and Impressionistic in style, the overall violence and energy in the painting are not typical for the movement. In general, Cezanne paintings from this period contain images of dreams, visions and mythology in a dark and brooding style. While he entered many of these paintings into competitions, they were not well received.

In 1869, Cezanne met Hortense Fiquet. The two would fall in love and begin a romantic relationship, but this aspect of Cezanne's life would remain hidden from view, as he feared that his father would not approve. The two would not marry until 1886, although they would have a child together in the interim.


In 1872, Cezanne would move to Auvers-On-Oise and work closely with Pissarro. This would be an important time in the development of Cezanne paintings. Here, he would develop a passion for painting things as they truly are, without sentimentality. In 1874, Cezanne would exhibit some of these paintings in the first independent Impressionist show. The Paul Cezanne paintings would be singled out for particular ridicule, and Cezanne would begin to break away from his Impressionist friends.

In 1877, Cezanne began to work in isolation in his home in southern France. He would stop showing his paintings publicly for 20 years. During this time, Cezanne paintings continue to grow and change. In Portrait of Victor Choque, painted between 1875 and 1877, the paint is applied heavily, and each brush stroke is approximately the same size. This gives the painting weight and depth.

In the 1870s, the Cezanne still life series of paintings began. A still life by Cezanne twists the standard medium and takes it to a new level. These paintings contain flat planes of color that contrast and intersect, forming a three-dimensional background. The objects themselves, however, are flat and appear as just simple shapes. In the Cezanne still life Apples, Peaches Pears and Grapes, the fruit sits heaped on a flat plane of a table. More fruit shapes appear in the background, but it is unclear if this is wallpaper or just more fruit the artist has declined to colorize. Many Cezanne still life paintings contain human skulls. These paintings allow the artist to contrast life, in fruits and plants, with death, in skulls and bones.


Cezanne began to paint landscapes once more, but twisting and bending the medium once more to suit his vision. In Le Pont de Mancy from 1882, a river forms a strict horizontal plane while a tree in the center of the canvas forms a vertical line. The rest of the painting, however, explodes with leaves and brushstrokes fanning in all directions. While the strokes are nearly the same size, they seem to overlap and conflict, and it can be difficult to tell what is in front of something else. This is a move to abstraction. Rather than providing a straightforward look at this view, Cezanne is experimenting with color and depth rather than objective reality. Cezanne entered paintings such as this into competitions in the Salon, but was rejected in 1884 and plunged Cezanne into depression.

In 1886, Emile Zola published "L'Ouevre," a novel describing an artist much like Cezanne who is a failure at his life's work. This was incredibly hurtful to Cezanne, who had been friends with Zola for so long. The two abandoned their friendship and never spoke again. This is an extremely sad and touching moment in the Cezanne biography, as the artist simply never recovered and withdrew into isolation yet further.

In 1895, art dealer Ambroise Vollard put together an exhibition of 150 Paul Cezanne paintings in Paris. The public was much more receptive to this work at this time, and the artist's fame began to grow. Cezanne would enter paintings into shows in 1899, 1901 and 1902, and in 1904 an entire room at the Salon d'Automne was dedicated to Cezanne paintings. 

In 1906, Cezanne fell ill after spending time outside in a storm, working on a painting. He died a few days later, and was honored in 1907 in a large public exhibition.