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“The Primitive of His Own Way”

by Russ Cushman


In the summer of 1995 I wrote this paper for an Art History class while finishing my art degree at Sam Houston State University. My computer crashed later and I thought it was lost forever. Then I found a hard copy recently, and was still proud of it, and amazingly, it fit right into the studies with which I am presently occupied, since the discovery of the “Pinkerton Tintypes”.... So here it is edited by twenty years of wisdom, and some of those never-before-seen tintypes!

“I had grown up virtually in the same cradle as my friend, my brother, Paul Cezanne, in whom one is only now beginning to discover the touches of genius of an aborted painter.” These are the words of Emile Zola, the famous writer and boyhood best-friend of Cezanne. They were words written for public scrutiny in the twilight of Cezanne's career and words that surely devastated Cezanne personally and professionally. An intellectual and patron of the arts, Zola frequently and avidly promoted the works of other artists while almost ignoring the one artist whom he knew and loved personally. 

Emile and Alexandrine Zola as newlyweds

The issues surrounding Zola's treatment of Cezanne are most telling and help raise an important question about Paul Cezanne, considered by many, for generations as a misunderstood genius and perhaps the father of Modern Art. Was he really, or was he merely a well-understood regional celebrity whose significance in history has been misunderstood by latter-day scholars who have sought a clear, artistic figurehead to stand in the gap between the era of realism and the era of abstraction?

It is my purpose to allow Cezanne and the people who knew him best to set the record straight. Through the observations of Zola, Joachim Gasquet and others close to this giant of modern art, it is possible to consider his place in art history and understand why his fame may have been the result of the times, rather than a result of historic accomplishment.

 Paul Cezanne: Self-Portrait

Paul Cezanne, like many artists after him, enjoyed a phenomenon posthumously that is the direct opposite of most others in public life. That is, the tendency to aggrandize and eulogize the artist's significance and his works far above his status while living.

Nevertheless, Paul Cezanne still suffered many years of sarcasm and obscurity in spite of his fame and popularity today. There are some clues as to why he was ignored or maligned most of his life, and how he miraculously ended up in history books as a major link in the development of modern art, even though he had no mentor and no apprentices. 

Emile Zola- (VERY young!) A longtime friend of Cezanne's,

virtually ended their relationship with his honesty.


Cezanne's old friend Emile Zola must have been truly frustrated. Although he enjoyed considerable influence on French sensibility, he dared not risk it in order to benefit Cezanne. In fact his boyhood companion, perhaps even the one who entertained his earliest artistic fascinations, must have been a great disappointment to him. No doubt everyone in Cezanne's small artistic circle respected his passion to paint, but few would publicly defend the results of his brush. 

Camille Pisarro, one of the most

respected of the French Impressionists.

Camille Pisarro, the veteran commercial prodigy of the Impressionists, spent painstaking hours with him, painting plein air, trying to help him “find his method.” Both ultimately experienced frustration from their collaboration.

Actually the son of Portuguese Jews, Cezanne's painting partner Pisarro was arguably one of the most successful landscape painters in France.

Cezanne had painted most of his adult life. In his sixties, he finally wrote, “I am on my way to learn to draw.” He sketched every day as a matter of discipline even though he suffered tremendous anxiety while trying to do basic skills in art. His friend and biographer, Joachim Gasquet, wrote many observations of Zola's “aborted painter...” “He went at it furiously, angrily, with clenched fists. He wept in front of his mutilated dream.” Painting had been a lifelong obsession for Cezanne, a frustrating daily battle for personal achievement, and an elusive quest for personal satisfaction. Cezanne's creative path was painful and unrewarding, and yet he pressed on. What could have compelled him?

Paul Cezanne: The Cardplayers

To Gasquet, Cexanne's act of painting became his religion. Unfortunately, it was an unforgiving one. Descriptions by his contemporaries sound less like heavenly artistic bliss and more like an endless wandering in a self-imposed hell of a hopeless wanna-be. Still, his need to paint satisfied some intangible need, for he enjoyed little monetary or artistic rewards. It was strictly a personal battle left on countless canvas battlefields. Cezanne contributed to the society of new artists, almost a beloved mascot, as they all sought acceptance and museum status in the French art world. But Camille Mauclair saw Cezanne as the outsider in a group of outsiders. “Although Cezanne aspired in his confusion to give Impressionism a kind of classical stylization, he nevertheless succeeded in only creating paintings characterized by brutal, barbaric gaudiness.”

 Paul Cezanne: Five Bathers

Tormented by rejection and his own perceptions of failure, Gasquet wrote that Cezanne “barricaded himself in his studio... strange, haunted, half-beast, half-god in pain... all the while producing atrocious sketches, studies and paintings.”

Banished in1882 from the Salon, the country's most prestigious art venue, his twisted and bloody sexual allegories became the object of cruel satire and public humiliation. Once his rejected entry to the Salon exhibit ended up in the hands of art students, who paraded around with it like a comic banner of a fallen enemy, and hung it in effigy like a hilarious joke.

If crudeness was the issue, even Cezanne admitted that “I am the primitive of my own way.” In other words, if he had a certain way or a style, he was merely the innovator and in fact a primitive beginner of that style. Gasquet, a young writer whose father knew Cezanne as a child and introduced him to the artist, was a friend to Cezanne first and his biographer later. So it is possible that Gasquet, unlike Zola, interpreted Cezanne through a filter of romance and sentimentality. Much of his account of their times together reflect this bias. Yet even idealistic and worshipful Gasquet was blunt about Cezanne's art and the way he felt about it. He explained in his book how Cezanne pined for recognition so that he would not die and be remembered as a “fraudulent old dreamer.”

Art historians seemed to have been determined that the tired old hermit would never be remembered thus. In due time Cezanne would be lifted out of his living hell, and its lackluster results, and his works delivered to a shore he could never reach on his own.

Still, it is a miracle he even reached post-mortem recognition, with so few finished works. Seeing most of his paintings as mere exercises, he thought nothing of piling them up in a corner, never to be considered again, except maybe to be conscripted to serve as a studio floor mat. Each painting, as Gasquet concluded, was just another “inarticulate leap towards the formula that he was never to complete.” The more frustrated he became, the wilder the results. Unfortunately, Gasquet noted “He exaggerated his lack of ability by exaggerating his methods.”

 Cezanne painted many portraits of his long-suffering model Marie, whom he finally married. They often appeared to be falling out of the canvas.

And this was the germ of progress that set modern art into motion! Whether genius or delusion, or outright insanity, Cezanne became the schizophrenic link between two art movements which had little in common. His one asset in this role was not talent or vision, but plain old persistence.

If Cezanne was primitive in art, he was savage at social skills. Insecure of his own genius, he was often overtly jealous and distrusting. His many failures made him paranoid of would-be patrons who “might be seeking to take advantage of him.” They might just continue the inner pain he struggled with since that pivotal betrayal by Zola. Perhaps they were trying to make money off of his peculiarity, and were just going to write another expose, or were only patronizing him to get a free painting, a bizarre relic to take home and entertain their associates. Even loyal Gasquet succumbed to his unfounded suspicions, and they parted under a dark cloud. Gasquet later mused that “Cezanne has no friends, except trees.”

Similarly, there was no love lost between Cezanne and his public. Gasquet once observed a heckler yelling at the humble old man while he painted outdoors. “Line him up against the wall, they should shoot painters like him!” Perhaps these were the drunken teasings of a confidant, the kind of outlandish banter enjoyed by fellow artists. But so pitiful were his outdoor sketches that Gasquet once witnessed a younger, yet more accomplished landscape artist stopping to assist him. The artist seemed unable to get through to Cezanne. He just took his brushes away and fixed the hopeless mess. Cezanne respectfully humored the well-intentioned would-be mentor. When the session was finished, he calmly scraped the results of the free lesson off of his canvas.

The experiments continued. Fontainbleu contended that he never ceased declaring that he was not making pictures, but that he was “searching for a technique.”

Meanwhile hapless Zola was maligned by Henry Rochfort for foisting a daubster like Cezanne on the public.” As careful as Zola had been, someone had to be blamed for such a travesty!

If the art world was through with Cezanne, history was just getting started. Through perseverance and longevity, Cezanne found an audience in the younger psycho-set, a new counter-culture in search of a mentor. They saw genius in his distortions and unmuddied colors. His subjects of colossal nudes and irreverent remakes of popular classics like his version of Manet's “Luncheon on the Grass” appealed to their hunger for more sensational, earthier statements. He was either crazy or the genuine article. Bearded and passionate, the social outcast took on the appearance of a prophet to them; an overlooked sage who had a monumental sense of purpose. 

Cezanne often created in terms of spoofs or tributes of famous art. He was a huge fan of Manet, and offered his own "Luncheon on the Grass."

Money had surely never been his goal, yet recognition was paramount. An unappreciated iconoclast finally found his offspring in the rebellion and naivete of youth. They would gladly finish the deconstruction which he had unwittingly begun.

Art History often credits this fumbling under-achiever with pioneering Fauvism, and inspiring Cubism and other “isms” which featured distortion, deconstruction and primitive art styles with counter-cultural overtones. In time the counter-culture became THE culture... until Cezanne's “way” was just an unnoticeable blip on the screen.

But now Cezanne could die with his status in tact. It is unfortunate that he chose to talk the talk, after meager recognition for his lengthy journey. As Rewald charitably observed, “Consistency was not the greatest virtue of his remarks.”

In fact the old searcher could not resist a few final salvos. He especially loved to philosophize with his admirers, especially the young and uninformed. He childishly maligned his contemporaries, even those who graciously had engineered his “discovery.” He would quickly withdraw when inquiries became too pointed or scholarly. When told that his works were to be displayed at the Louvre, he replied, “The Louvre, yes. Just the same the jurists are all swine.”Cezanne was not only a primitive painter, he was notorious for primitive behavior. He was petty and ungrateful. Even vengeful.

“The Louvre should be burned down,” he once told Gasquet. As with many of the persecuted, Cezanne became the worst kind of persecutor.

Many critics have tried to understand Paul Cezanne under different lights and through different colored lenses. He defied this. He once pronounced, “The world does not understand me, and I do not understand the world.” These were words of a prophet or a miserable malcontent. 

One of Cezanne's more successful attempts to capture Marie.


Marie Cezanne

While art historians began to write his eulogies and study his grand designs, his wife explained humbly what many who knew him already agreed upon. After his death she seemed impatient with his admirers. They still did not get it. Mrs. Cezanne had been his patient partner for decades and was determined to set them straight. Perhaps she remembered how he hid her and their child from his father for years, so that he would not be cut off from his inheritance. Perhaps she thought about all the time and money spent on trips and art supplies with little left to feed her household; or waiting patiently for a scrap from him during his passionate lifelong search for recognition. Perhaps she remembered all the attention he had received from countless benefactors, all to no avail. “Cezanne didn't know what he was doing.” She insisted. “He didn't know how to finish his pictures. Renoir and Monet, THEY knew their craft.”

 Monet was the undisputed master of his craft.

Scores of critics had trashed Cezanne as impotent, primitive, naive, brutal, even criminal, and now the one person that stood to gain the most from the Cezanne myth refused to perpetuate it. Stacks of his unfinished paintings had been left behind every season when he changed his habitat. They could be a gold mine now with the right promotion. Perhaps she did not know, or did not care that his paintings had begun to catch on with speculative investors who had already begun to gather up his works at every opportunity.

Incredibly, Cezanne's paintings were bringing premium prices at Impressionist auctions. Once when the price seemed extraordinary, 6750 francs. The crowd demanded that the buyer be revealed, if there truly was one. “It is I, Claude Monet” said the proud bidder. Sure enough, Monet had become aware of his own influence, and in an historic if not sentimental gesture, was inadvertently legitimatizing Cezanne's art. 

 Claude Monet

Having once made his living doing cheap portraits, Monet could capture a likeness, a good indicator of his talent. One the left is a tintype in my collection, on the right Claude Monet's portrait of Camille, his first wife.

We will never know the intent of this remarkable event, but perhaps an objective glance at the French art market of that day would be beneficial. While Paul Cezanne was “overturning an order that had lasted for four centuries” as Liliane Brion-Guerry claimed in her glowing article, other forces were also at work destroying the known art world which certainly aided the revolution and its supposed instigator.

Patricia Mainardi has written a very informative book about the French Salon and its demise. Her explanations concerning the forces in battle over French art and its market create a perfect environment for historic change and cataclysm. In “The End of the Salon,” Mainardi weakens the common paradigms of Modernism. She contends that “Modernist theory, insofar as it has been formalist has impoverished our understanding of art by looking only at aesthetics.” Mainardi goes on to reveal the many important factors that bred a revolution in the world art scene, and especially the economic factors.

For two hundred years, a very fragile symbolic relationship had been cultivated between the state and the art community. In France, the government, the Art academy, the Salon Exhibit, the collectors, and of course the artists, all fulfilled their essential roles and together built one of the great art movements in history.

All of this attention to art only bred more and more aspiring artists, until the Salon show could no longer function without rejecting most artists who desired to participate. As Zola noted, “The worst of it is that today there is still not a single person satisfied. We continuously find, both among those exhibiting and those refused, malcontents who demand reforms.”

One of the biggest gripers about the Salon was Edouard Manet, (center) who always threatened not to show, but always did, forsaking his Impressionist buddies. This RARE image shows Emmanuel Chabrier (left) and Manet and his brother Eugene.

Most artists today would envy the French and their situation, but then the circumstances seemed to breed jealousy and pettiness and a corrupting environment of politics and greed. Artists in control of the Salon were territorial and self-serving. The younger generation felt wisely that they were competing against a stacked deck. Sub-groups and manifestos sprung up from every studio, and the Impressionists were just one such group who found the system unfair and stagnant.

It is no surprise that the Salon organizers claimed that they were the guards of artistic standards of excellence and integrity, and were determined to old their torch high and out of reach of the “battalion of mediocre artists” as the director phrased it. Ironically it was the Salon that saw itself as the guard against commercialism of art, with the supposed “champions of artistic freedom” clamoring at its gates for fair exposure and the lucrative benefits locked up within the Salon.

The rise of the middle-class during the Industrial Revolution not only provided more art buyers, but also more would-be artists. But their lack of artistic sophistication shocked the Salon as it tried to uphold tradition and French values. The result was a political meltdown.

Education was the answer they told themselves. Art appreciation. But at the same time an uncultured throng was arriving at French shores which would make any general enlightenment impossible. American tourists were bringing their own tastes and sensibilities to the world art market.

The crude and unrefined efforts rejected by the French art aristocracy were juicy beefsteak to the bourgeoisie heathen from America. While the Salon sought the impossible task to educate, art dealers determined to lubricate the French economy with American dollars. The money would also help encourage a whole new generation of French artists. Unfortunately, it would also embolden them against art appreciation.

Swiftly Capitalism raised its ugly head and devoured the revered French art system. The Salon became irrelevant. With Yankee money supporting the new entrepreneurs of art, art dealers began to not only make art history but to write it. Durand-Ruel. the Cassirers and others unashamedly began to interpret the historical importance of their inventories for the uneducated masses. The rest is history. 

Paul Durand-Ruel

The collapse of the government-sponsored French art system and the Salon ended most of the whining among the artists but left a gigantic hole in the French economy. No longer was the issue of art and freedom of self-expression, instead it became art and the world of power and profit. When the Salon faded into history, remembered mostly for who it excluded, the free market moved forward and amazes us still with what it included.

Art export revenues from France went through the roof, as did the reactions of French art experts. The art pie got even bigger and so did art profits. American money greased the world art wheel and soon New York became a world art center. Department stores, book dealers and museums jumped into the lucrative American art market, which was built around French art and its talented American imitators.

America led the way in consuming the new Modernism. Controversial artists with flawed character seemed to hold a special esteem. In Marketing Modernism, Robert Jensen tells how “Americans rescued the Parisian Modernists by being among the first to buy their art at high prices and in volume. Americans were indiscriminate and voracious and equally as generous upon their return to the States, bequeathing their collections of French art to fledgling museums, fulfilling Cezanne's goal of credibility for the Impressionists.”

The new gallery system which filled the French market depended on several factors. The end of the Salon, the excitement of art history in the making, as Modernism was born, and an unlimited supply of cheap art to export. The last factor being the most important. Strategies were implemented to market new products; Retrospectives and one-man shows with an emphasis on the cutting edge of “Modernism.” Ever since it has been difficult to discern which was more important in art, the intrinsic craftsmanship or the novelty of it. Jensen points out that “Avant Gardism” arose out of the historical movement in which Modernisms... divided heretofore indivisible Modernisms into factions. These isms... haunted by the need for originality.. by the desire to get a piece of the market share.” (I apologize for this editing, to maintain a degree of coherence!)

In less than thirty years many “isms' exploded on the scene. Before this market competition took over, an ism might last twenty to fifty years. Goaded by the galleries, who were the beneficiaries of this constant making of history, art has been flying at a dead run for one hundred years, with countless isms and revolutions and revivals and re-definitions of what it means to be “modern.”

Compared to the rest of his associates known today as the Impressionists, Cezanne was a peculiar duck. They were all so middle-class and stuffy and mired in self-importance. Cezanne began the parade of stereotypical modern artists as weird and beyond social norms. And each has had to out-do the other. The artist as “personality” became an important ingredient to art marketing. An artist's temperament or “oeuvre” was discussed as much as his craftsmanship. Brochures, printed reproductions, and show catalogs became tools of the trade. It took an American to pioneer this new approach to success. James McNeill Whistler took Europe by storm with his flamboyant one-man art shows that historians still talk about.

 James McNeill Whistler

Whistler saw that exhibiting art was an art in itself, and with all the cunning of P. T. Barnum, he painted, promoted and propagandized his way into art history. He anticipated that the middle class audience wanted more than pictures, they wanted a personality to identify with. They wanted their artists to be tangible, accessible celebrities. Whistler played this to the hilt, while his art was strictly mundane if not mediocre.

 James McNeill Whistler: Symphony in White

The famous art critic Ruskin excoriated Whistler as a contemptible charlatan. The more Ruskin protested, the more the American celebrity preened himself. Whistler depended so much on controversy that he actually published Ruskin's attacks and distributed them at his exhibits all around Europe like a “broken butterfly” seeking sympathy. Whatever his artistic talent, his marketing was sheer genius. Every artist since has had to compete with that.

Ruskin took art very seriously, and took Whistler to court twice, trying to expose him as a fraud. But Whistler used the whole drama to lay the groundwork for the new art world, the art market, a dealer-critic system where clever promotion of the art established its historical importance, before history could write itself. As one artist friend of mine has explained, “it does not matter what people are saying, as long as they are talking about you!” Shy, quiet types please step to the rear.

The dealer as ideologue and instructor was convenient to the novice collector, and convenient to the dealer as well. Impressionism had been a minor part of the market up until the 1880's. Commercial savvy learned from marketing artists from the Barbizon school led dealers to start speculating in the more daring pools of the avant garde. Paul Durand Ruel led the way. After learning to capitalize on the American market with the works of Millet and other Barbizion painters, he saw a need for an inexpensive, yet plentiful commodity. Theo Van Gogh, Vollard and others watched and learned as he bought up Impressionists work cheaply and then sold it for respectable profits. He almost single-handedly launched Monet and Renoir and Morisot and others. 

Berthe and Edma Morisot

No one can argue that it was Durand-Ruel's marketing genius which scooped up apparently minor works and transformed their historical importance through his amazing promotional strategies. His successes gave birth to much criticism, including suspicions of dealer-managed art conspiracies. Durand-Ruel explained to his collectors that he too was a collector and that “commerce was an unfortunate sideline” to his efforts. The cagey dealer was not afraid to rub shoulders with intrigue and even deception, capitalizing on his clients with all that modern invention provided. He created a directory of artists and their works, and made photographic copies to document the art. He masterminded a network of galleries that would work collaboratively to promote the artists as they “made history.” As the French art market was collapsing, he took his wares abroad. In the process, Durand-Ruel may have changed art forever, and may have postponed the death of art we are seeing today by one hundred years. Caught in a similar collapse, today's dealers and artists must take the show on the road again to survive. But where is the new America?

The pundits like Zola were appropriately concerned, but they could never have provided solutions to this massive cultural drift. Zola lamented that art “middlemen were concerned more with profits than art and artist's welfare, always depending on the amateur American collectors.”

In fact Americans shouldered the load of supporting Modernism financially until the turn of the century and beyond. Art dealers had sprung up in New York and Berlin and London. They became a veritable machine of self-dictated art history. And the machine fed only on the avant garde, to keep stretching the values and whims of the buyers and to keep changing what was fashionable and “historically important.” Enter Paul Cezanne. (Dead of course)

Like his people, Cezanne's buildings also often lean.

Durand-Ruel's secret was to invest early in unknown or disenfranchised artists. The dealer circle was capable of making anyone significant in order to fill their inventories and sell to the unschooled. The more galleries there were, the more pressure to find new “masters.” Soon the Cassirers were applying his methods in Berlin. 

Uncannily, many noted artists following Cezanne reflect a commonality in that they were social rebels, “les miserables,” reaping the whirlwind from poor choices in life. Suicidal, self-destructive, excessive, radical and even psychopathic. Their lives and lifestyles have made amusing copy for writers and historians for a century. But the question should have been asked as to why, against all odds, were so many of the major artists of this period representative of the fringe element? While most of them were treated with ambivalence during their lives, they somehow became artistic giants with purpose upon their deaths.

Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh may have had issues,

but he understood perspective and design.

Could there have been among art critics an overwhelming desire to establish art as the billboard of social conscience, and Freud as the high priest of the artist's subconscious?

Might the emergence of art “dealer-critics” who gladly developed a stable of the avant garde, hand-picked for their marketability towards neophyte middle-class tastes have affected the outcome of art history? Could it be that only artists that fit into this grand design were perceived to be more significant, ie. historic, in the “Modern” scheme of things? During this hotbed of controversy where the intellectually inclined loved to dabble in psychoanalysis and dream analysis, might there have been an obsession with those who spoke for the most evocative element in this psycho-sessive society?

Perhaps the violent, the depressed, the socially uninhibited had more of interest to reveal to the the psycho-set than some mundane family man with no apparent aberrant social behavior. 

With this concept advanced Courbet, Degas, Lautrec, VanGogh, Gaugin and Cezanne, as well as many others became a select group, a chain of counterculture that was significant, not so much because of their attentions, but rather the world's attention to them. What made them popular was not their artistic prowess, but rather their lifestyles, their “oeuvre.” As art became more susceptible to promoters and charlatans and with the the introduction of the middle class and their ignorance into the market, and as fascination with Freud and his studies spread, it seems natural that the public would focus on the most sensational art available. Apparently, inquiring minds have always wanted to know.

This was the beginning of art as entertainment, a phenomenon Picasso later candidly articulated.

 Pablo Picasso: Houses on the Hill. No leaning here. Even the master cubist used a plumb line to create depth and perspective.

The Cassirers did four shows for Cezanne in ten years. One can imagine the gold rush mentality after Cezanne's death in 1906. The jealous local critics, who did not have any of Cezanne's paintings to sell, accused the Cassirers of marketing the studio leftovers of an obscure and deceased painter. They must have noticed that the works were not even signed. According to the artist who made them, most were mere experiments. They were steps, mostly missteps in his search for a technique, left behind like wood chips in a lumberyard. Nobody knows how much money was made, but with Madam Cezanne's attitude, there was plenty of room for a middleman. Not to be outdone by the Germans, these sales set off a chain reaction of Cezanne fans in France.

It does not take much imagination to conjure the final product of the convergence of the art history racket, the psycho-set, and the birth of American capitalism and arrive at a fairly accurate feel for the environment in which Cezanne ultimately flourished. Follow that with later artist's fascination with Freud and primitivism and Voila! Cezanne appears comfortably seated between two major art worlds.

But was Cezanne really a link between the two? Historians would say yes without hesitation. His art was after all distinct from his contemporaries and wonderfully different from anything before. He was the one who bravely broke away from artistic convention, in fact hundreds of years of tradition.

Still, I challenge Cezanne's place with my own observations. IF he was such a pathfinder, why did he spend all of his career retracing his own steps? He was chronically backtracking, painting in circles, never reaching his destination. Perhaps never even visioning it. Cezanne never exhibited the growth and maturity of, say Monet or Picasso.It is more likely that Cezanne lost his way, and countless ungrounded artists followed him.

Rather than inventing something, Cezanne was forever a student of the past, wrestling with the standards set before; Always comparing his works, even mimicking the great tradition-bound masters of the past. All he ever mentioned as far as artistic style was humbly trying to combine Classicism with Impressionism. Yet neither style would have claimed him.

A genuine trendsetter would never have suffered the contempt of the critics year after year, stuck in a veritable intellectual black hole. And he would never have cared if they rejected him, and never lost so much sleep or self-esteem. A true iconoclast knows what he is and relishes in it. And he is very good at what he does, which gives him the leverage to be different. He expects some rejection from a world that can only follow him. Yet Cezanne was consistently tormented by his nameless struggle.

Joyce Medina admits that when it comes to fleshing out this artist's intentions, his motives and reasons are up for grabs. “For today's interpreter, the greatest critical problem to be solved arises from the fact that spokespersons for Cezanne (Bernard, Denis, Gasquet, Vollard, Geffroy, etc.) have often redefined Cezannism to suit their own aims.”

Cezanne has been adopted and branded by so many schools that if he were a cow, his hide would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. Classicism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Primitivism, Symbolism, Romanticism, Cubism, Fauvism, and yes even Realism. Medina also confesses that “the opposing schools of Cezanne scholarship that arose from the multiplicity of interpretations of Cezanne's expressive forms appear irreconcilable.” Whereas Monet and Picasso knew what they were and what they were not, and likewise we know too, Cezanne only left behind confusion and ambiguity. 

 Paul Cezanne: Still Life

Pisarro denied, no matter how much he admired him, that Cezanne was an Impressionist. “Cezanne is not an Impressionist because all of his life he has been painting the same picture.” He winsomely described him as a “refined savage.”

Still many scholars have claimed and still claim that Cezanne is the father of Cubism. Rewald had no problem refuting this myth which was certainly encouraged by the Cubists. Rewald insisted that “in Cezanne's work, however, one finds neither cylinders or cones, nor parallel and perpendicular lines. The line never having existed for Cezanne. One might thus be permitted to see in this theory an attempt to express his consciousness of structure beneath the colored surface presented by nature... But nowhere in his canvases did Cezanne pursue this abstract concept at the expense of his direct sensations. He always found his forms in nature and not in geometry.”

In fact, Cezanne's actual comments about cylinders and cones merely reflected his innocent and elementary approach to analyzing form, like any struggling drawing student.

An honest study of Cezanne's work would place him too Classicist for the Fauves, too Fauvist for the Classicists. He really was the “primitive of his own way.” And Cezanne never claimed to have found his own way. Bernard and Gasquet drilled and probed him and forced him to verbalize, perhaps for the first time, what his ideas about art were. And no wonder they seem inconsistent. Artists evolve and grow and even change over the decades. Still, Cezanne never really passed down one consistent train of thought. His thoughts were still searching, just as his paintings were. It would be foolish to interrogate any researcher in the middle of his experiment, and try to come away with a conclusion. And Cezanne never finished his research, never published any conclusions. He rarely ever finished and signed one of his works.

Promoters used Freud and existentialism to explain this man in mortal combat with his personal view of art and his ultimate failure to develop his talent and to finish the fight. If Cezanne was anything, he was primitive. Like Rousseau, doing his thing, trying to improve, his attempts admired by the schooled and unschooled. If he inadvertently became the father of Modern Art, he did it painting in his own private hell. What irony. What sweet justice. Any counter-culturalist would love that.

Rochefort put it so well: “all the diseased minds, the topsy turvey souls, the shady and the disabled were ripe for the coming of the Messiah of Treason.”

George Heard Hamilton insists that although many great artists were convinced that Cezanne was just a naive painter, and certainly an accomplished one, he nevertheless should be considered a great initiator “in spite of his incompleteness.”

Joyce Medina proposes that perhaps he was like an unwitting spiritual medium through whom “Modernism thought itself through him.”

Let me translate that for you. Modernism in art evolved through spontaneous combustion... inside of Cezanne's mind. ;)

These are all latter-day rationalizations. Perhaps Cezanne was a perfect instrument, working, searching, suffering along, through whom a whole generation could, vicariously,  channel their beliefs and convictions. But it would be wise to make no claims concerning Cezanne that he failed to make himself. That does not mean that we necessarily can believe all of his claims. Once when being probed and poked by a young writer, Cezanne offered his best advice; 

“Do not be an art critic, but paint. Therein lies salvation.”

Messiah of treason? No. A prototype for the “peintres maudits”? Perhaps. But the father of Modern Art? Probably not. Maybe the eccentric cousin of Impressionism with no heirs. Nevertheless a cousin whose assets were rich and yet ambiguous enough to be useful to the next generation of fatherless searchers. And that, my brother Paul Cezanne, still counts for something.