Paul Cézanne, the Father of Modern art


Cézanne occupies a special place in the history of Modern art. Rejected by the art world at the beginning of his career, he had a major influence on numerous artists. Mocked during his lifetime, his paintings are today among the most expensive on the global market.

The story of Paul CÉZANNE’s accession to this special place in the history of Modern Art was far from linear. It started with failure in his entrance exam to the School of Fine Arts… That was in 1861 and Cézanne had already embarked on the road that would eventually bring about a radical change in the Western approach painting. He had already abandoned the classical style of his youth and was beginning to assert himself. This period of creation is nowadays considered his first in a career that art historians usually divide into three. Two years later one of his paintings was refused at the Salon Officiel in Paris. Edouard Manet suffered the same fate with his Déjeuner sur l’herbe, today one of the Musée d’Orsay’s most prestigious possessions. As things turned out, these rejections became opportunities because in 1863 Napoleon III authorised the first Salon des Refusés that allowed all the artists outside the ‘official taste’ to meet and exchange ideas, including several geniuses who completely revolutionised painting over the following years.

As of 1872 Cezanne started working with Camille PISSARRO in Pontoise. The friendship between the two painters influenced Cézanne’s second period, characterised by a number of landscape paintings. The resonance of his paintings during this period brought him closer to Impressionism and his works were regularly exhibited alongside the great figures of the Impressionist movement until 1877. But Cézanne quickly deviated from their core style seeking an alternative path which ultimately became a new form of geometric rhythm that is sometimes referred to as his “constructive” period (roughly 1880-1888). It was this style that he honed and perfected over the rest of his life.

From 1878, in his landscapes, his still lifes and his portraits, Cézanne simplified forms and played with their chromatic structures, systematically applying his own particular formula to his work: ‘everything in nature is modeled on cylinders, spheres and cones’. Bowls, chairs, peonies, fruit… Cézanne perceived everything as shapes to be understood and painted, sometimes from several different angles at the same time… from above, from the side or from a diagonal perspective. Indeed, Cézanne deconstructed classical perspective. By pre-figuring the Cubists, he became a reference point and the central pillar of Modern painting.

Fortunately Cézanne’s path crossed that of an enlightened and involved dealer. Ambroise Vollard discovered Cézanne’s work at Julien Tanguy’s (aka Père Tanguy) art supplies shop and was apparently so impressed he organized an exhibition of his works in 1895, himself buying several paintings from the artist. He was not the only one. Over the following years, Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir all acquired several works by Cezanne and his reputation continued to grow with more exhibitions at Vollard and a number of works included in the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Having been one of the favourite targets of critics and the press (art critic Georges Rivière described his paintings as being good only for laughter), Cézanne’s modernity began to change the face of Modern art… Although they never met, Pablo Picasso praised his talent several times, confiding to his friend photographer friend Brassaï that Cézanne was his “one and only master” and the “father of all avant-garde artists”.

Market peaks

Cézanne’s best works were created in the region of Aix en Provence in the South of France where the artist spent most of his time after 1878. For Cézanne, painting was a serious, lonely and demanding activity and his relationship to his work is reflected in the subjects he returned to most frequently. The Montagne Saint-Victoire was a favourite until his death, as were still-lifes with mixed perspectives and viewpoints. These later works are the most sought-after on the market, sometimes fetching over $20 million. On 10 May 1999, a major canvas entitled Rideau, cruchon et compotier (1893 /1894) became the world’s most expensive still-life ever sold at auction (Sotheby’s, New York). Having belonged to Ambroise Vollard, Paul Rosenberg and Albert Barnes, among others, the work fetched a historic record of $60 million. Since then, none of Cézanne’s paintings have reached that threshold, primarily because very few of his top quality works arrive on the secondary market. On the other hand, a version of his Joueurs de cartes (the emblematic series on which Cézanne worked from 1890 to 1896) fetched a much higher price in the framework of a private sale when it was acquired by Qatar’s royal family for over $250 million in 20121. That transaction caused a sensation at the time as the most expensive ever recorded for a work of Fine Art. It has since been beaten by Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi which was acquired for $450 million in November 2017 by a Saudi prince. Nevertheless… in price terms, Cezanne is undoubtedly one of the world’s top 10 artist. His ‘discretion’ on the auction market is essentially due to the scarcity of major works in circulation.

Hidden drawings

Cézanne’s works on paper are a little less rare. One of his last important watercolors appeared on the Parisian auction market last December. Drawn at the end of his life, this 60cm work entitled Intérieur de forêt (1904-1906) fetched $6.8 million at Hôtel Drouot in Paris, the highest auction price ever recorded for a work by Cézanne in France. Indeed despite the rarity, the market will no doubt produce further surprises for the ‘Father of Modern Art’, especially with the occasional work appearing from nowhere – so to speak – as we once again saw two years ago when the Rouen-based appraiser Normandie-Auction spotted a small unsigned but remarkably executed watercolor in a house in northern France. The second appraiser’s report confirmed that this Etude de figure (measuring only 10 by 7 cm) was indeed by Cézanne… and the work immediately fetched $124,000, i.e. four times its high estimate (at Delphine Fremaux-Lejeune – Normandie-auction) on 18 December 2016.

1Source Vanity Fair, Alexandra Peers, Qatar Purchases Cezanne’s The Card Players for More Than $ 250 Million, Highest Price Ever for a Work of Art, 2 February 2012.