Paul Cézanne: The Father of Modern Art

Considered the “Father of modern art”, Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne’s fresh, lively canvases broke with artistic tradition and led the way for the 20th century avant-garde.

Oct 16, 2019By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
Paul Cezanne with his canvas, The Large Bathers, 1906
Paul Cezanne with his canvas, The Large Bathers, 1906

Considered the “Father of modern art”, Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne’s fresh, lively canvases broke with artistic tradition and led the way for the 20th century avant-garde.

An early member of the Impressionist group, Cezanne was fascinated with fleeting weather patterns in the landscape, but he later moved towards an analysis of form and weight with solid, blocky panels of colour and light, whose shifting viewpoints and multiple perspective analysed and abstracted the very nature of human perception and emotion. He wrote, “Painting from nature is not copying the object,” he wrote, “it is realising one’s sensations.”


Born in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France in 1839, Cezanne had a lifelong fascination with the countryside where he grew up. The artist’s tyrannical father had hoped his son would follow his footsteps into banking, but the young Cezanne had artistic aspirations.

An intense childhood friendship with Emile Zola, later an esteemed Parisian writer, furthered his ambition to pursue the arts, along with a series of art classes in Aix. Reluctantly Cezanne’s family financed a trip to Paris, where Cezanne hoped to study painting.  

The Influence of Paris

After several failed attempts to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris Cezanne chose instead to teach himself, copying paintings in the Louvre by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio and Eugene Delacroix.

Much like the old masters he explored tense, heightened mythological stories, as seen in the macabre painting, The Murder, 1867-70. At the same time Cezanne was drawn to the progressive side of the Parisian art world, picking up influences from Gustav Courbet and Edouard Manet in his early work, emulating their dark, moody colour schemes and heavy handling of paint.

The Murder, 1867-70
The Murder, 1867-70

Finding Impressionism

Cezanne and Pissarro, Rue de l'Hermitage 54 at Pontoise, 1873
Cezanne and Pissarro, Rue de l’Hermitage 54 at Pontoise, 1873

While attending life drawing classes at the Academie Suisse in Paris, Cezanne first met and befriended Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, who would go on to establish the Impressionist movement in the years that followed. Under their influence, Cezanne became increasingly drawn to painting en plein air, from real life subjects before him.

Pissarro and Cezanne struck up a close friendship and as Cezanne’s senior, Pissarro became a mentor and guide, giving his young student the confidence to branch out on his own with an Impressionist style.

During regular visits to L’Estaque in the South of France in the 1870s and 1880s Cezanne was able to respond intuitively to the vividly coloured landscape around him, developing his trademark palette of sandy tones with deep greens and vivid blues. Even at this stage in his career Cezanne’s work already had a sense of structure and weight that set him apart from his Impressionist peers, as seen The Road Bridge at L’Estaque, 1879 and L’Estaque, 1883-5.

L’Estaque, 1883-5
L’Estaque, 1883-5

Returning to Aix

The Card Players, 1894-5
The Card Players, 1894-5

Cezanne had a son with his mistress Hortense Fiquet in 1872 and they would eventually marry in 1886, while she was a regular sitter for his portraits. Cezanne also continued to paint alongside the Impressionists, taking part in several of their group exhibitions, although the harsh criticism the shows received took a blow to his self-confidence.

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He began increasingly spending time in his home town in Aix, particularly when he inherited the family home after his father’s death in 1886. After withdrawing from the Impressionist group Cezanne’s work became more concerned with the depiction of volumetric space and he increasingly focussed on still life subjects, which broke solid forms into a series of faceted planes, with small, square brushstrokes.

Portraits were also a source of fascination, where geometric, simplified figures seem to dissolve into their surroundings, as seen in The Card Players, 1894-5. The work was one of many in which Cezanne captured the honest simplicity of the peasant life, an ongoing source of fascination.

Late Success

The Large Bathers, 1906
The Large Bathers, 1906

Success came to Cezanne later in life, with his first one man show in 1894, aged 56. In the following years, dealers, collectors and younger artists began appreciating the radical nature of his fluidly structured paintings and distinctive muted palette, which liberated painting from the depiction of reality into the realms of subjectivity.

By the 1900s, Cezanne had become a revered and influential figure and many art world figures made a pilgrimage to his home in Aix to seek him out. Towards the end of his career, Cezanne focussed primarily on two core subjects; the Montagne Sainte-Victoire in Provence, and the collective study of nudes in a landscape, which he called The Large Bathers, 1906.

During a painting trip in his native Aix, Cezanne got caught in a rainstorm and contracted pneumonia, dying a few days later in 1906.

Legacy Today

Nature Morte de Peches et Poires, 1885-7
Nature Morte de Peches et Poires, 1885-7

By 1907, following his death a major retrospective in Paris exposed the full scope of Cezanne’s art to a new generation; his influence was felt in avant-garde movements including Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism and even leading the way to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.

Auction Results for Paul Cezanne Paintings

His stature as a giant of art history today has led to some eye watering sales, including:

  1. Card Players, 1894-5, which sold for a staggering $274 million in 2011. Sold privately to the Royal family of Qatar, at the time making it the most expensive painting ever sold.
  2. Bouilloire et Fruits, 1888-90, sold for $52 million at Christie’s in 2019.
  3. Nature Morte de Peches et Poires, 1885-7, reaching $28.2 million at Christie’s in 2019.
  4. Les Pommes, 1889-90, sold for $41.6 million at Sotheby’s in 2013.
  5. Sainte Victoire vue du Bosque du Chateau Noir, 1904, sold privately for $102 million in 2014.

Did You Know?

Cezanne received small amounts of financial support from his wealthy banking father throughout his career, meaning he was able to focus solely on developing his artwork. When he moved into the family home in Aix following his father’s death, Cezanne had servants who worked for him, but he often felt a close affinity with them.

Cezanne deliberately lived an acetic life; when he first met the esteemed painter Edouard Manet, Cezanne refused to shake his hand, claiming he didn’t want to make Manet dirty since hadn’t “washed for eight days.”

A hugely prolific artist, Cezanne produced around 900 oil paintings and 400 watercolours in his lifetime, including more than 30 self-portraits.

Cezanne would spend so long completing his still life paintings that the fruit and flowers would dry out and go mouldy, so he would need to replace them with paper flowers and artificial fruit.

Parisian writer Emile Zola created an unappealing character in his novel L’Oeuvre, 1886 that was based on Cezanne, thus ending their lifelong friendship.

In his later years Cezanne’s wife and son remained in Paris, while Cezanne’s gardener, Vallier became his close companion and featured in two series’ of paintings. Cezanne even painted himself dressed as Vallier in his gardener’s clothes, revealing his deep affinity with the man, and the simple life of the rural peasant.

A careful and considered painter, in his later career Cezanne would often spend up to 100 sessions perfecting a work of art.

Cezanne was a devout Roman Catholic and his religious belief fuelled a love of nature as he explained, “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

Entranced with the outline of Mont Saint-Victoire, Cezanne painted the monumental mountain more than 60 times, from differing angles and in varying weather patterns, capturing it as a dense patchwork of shimmering colour.

Pablo Picasso famously referred to Cezanne as “the father of us all”, which led him to later become known as the “father of modern art.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.