It turns out Picasso wasn’t the only heavy-weight painter whose work took a dour turn when personal anguish presented itself. In fact, one of his first great (platonic) muses did too — Paul Cézanne.
Yet to understand what made Paul sad for a spell requires rewinding a ways. Cézanne was born in 1839 in southern France, Aix-en-Provence to be precise, where he attended law school and took evening drawing lessons. Reaching nascent adulthood, he rebuked his father’s plans for him and went away to live an artist’s life in Paris, with its sketchable feast of provocative sights.
Apparently things weren’t so pretty. During his nine years in the capital, spanning from 1861-1870, he spiraled into the first of a few well-defined periods in his career. His dark period, from which a selection of pieces can be seen below.
Two years into his stay, Napoleon III decreed the Salon des Refusés into existence, an exhibition for all the misfit compositions submitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ annual affair. Lots of young Impressionists were on display, Cézanne’s stylistic role-models. Never meet your idols they say.
Cézanne was known to be clunky in conversation with the set of young upstarts, timid and prone to sniping out boorish, angry remarks. He also suffered his fair share of reclusive pitfalls into depression.
His compositions shifted, from the dainty watercolours of his provincial days to much heavier stuff. Stormy hues began to dominate, blackest black above all, and his brushwork went rabid. He acquired a taste for severe use of the palette knife and the sharp thrashing gesture that goes with it. He called these stabby works, many of them portraits, des couillardes, not at all far from a French word for testicles.
Well, Cézanne did have balls. For though he struggled with himself at this time, one art historian in particular, Lawrence Gowing, credits his dark period works as a birthing device for modern Expressionism, first making it possible for art to be read as a pure receptacle for emotional overflow.
As his irascibility wore on, Cézanne’s subject matter grew increasingly titillating and savage, including rape and murder most foul.
Though when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, he slapped the title draft-dodger on his back and scooped his mistress back south. Funnily enough, his work changed abruptly again — focusing on the motley, rocky landscapes he knew as a youth, and for which he is particularly well-loved today.
Though visually incomparable, perhaps Paris proved a tough place for a green soul prone to anxiety and melancholy. Even today, the city remains mind-blowing to visit but not at all the friendliest place to fully assimilate into. For a young Cézanne in his thirties, less claustrophobicly grey climes, painting en plein air and familiarity seemed the winning combo for cheering his oeuvre right up.
Sources: New World Encyclopedia, “Paul Cézanne”, Online
Sir Lawrence Gowing, Cézanne: The Early Years 1859-71, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988
Cover image: The Lion and the Basin at the Jas de Bouffan, 1866