- - Friday, November 9, 2012

By Alex Danchev
Pantheon Books, $40, 512 pages

Virtually all the impressionists revered Cezanne. Renoir said he couldn’t “put two strokes of paint on a canvas without it already being very good.” He made a point of working with Cezanne, and he owned several of Cezanne’s paintings. He and Degas once competed to buy a Cezanne still life of pears. (Degas, already the owner of several Cezannes, won.) Pissarro owned 21 Cezanne paintings and many drawings. Gauguin had six Cezannes, one of which he took to restaurants, where he demonstrated its virtuosities. Monet had 14 Cezannes, three of them in his bedroom. Monet’s wife apparently was tempted to cover them when things were going badly for her husband because they provoked such professional envy.

Cezanne, in turn, admired Monet, calling him “the strongest of us all.” On another occasion, he affirmed, “Monet and Pissarro, the two great masters, the only two!” On the other hand, he actively disliked Gauguin’s work and thought Degas lacked the necessary personality for a painter. He even had reservations about many of Renoir’s paintings.

Like most other impressionists, Paul Cezanne came from an affluent middle-class background. He was born in Aix-en-Provence, where his father was a businessman. He excelled at school, especially in Latin, and became close friends with his classmates Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille, both of whom also achieved fame — Zola, of course, as a novelist, and Baille as a distinguished physicist. His father insisted that Cezanne study law, but eventually he was persuaded to give the young man an allowance so he could go to Paris and paint.

Cezanne learned by painting alongside other would-be artists in the Studio Suisse and looking at paintings in the Louvre. He quickly met the young painters we now know as the impressionists. Like them, he had his work rejected by the official Salon des Beaux Arts, but while most of the other impressionists eventually achieved acceptance, Cezanne was always rejected despite submitting paintings every year.

In “Cezanne: A Life,” Alex Danchev provides a well-documented and insightful account of Cezanne’s history. One of its strengths is that it shows Cezanne from multiple perspectives. We meet him as an avid reader, often returning to the classical poets as well as keeping up with the newspapers and novels of his day. We see him as a friend. “Prickly as a hedgehog,” Renoir said, but loyal too. When Pissarro, who was Jewish, was being shunned during the anti-Semitic Dreyfusard years, Cezanne pointedly claimed him as his teacher.

Many other friendships also lasted long, though mysteriously, he and Zola eventually drew apart. Back home in Aix, which Cezanne never entirely left and to which he eventually returned permanently, he said he liked the look of people “who have grown old without drastically changing their habits.” In return, according to the local locksmith, the townspeople “Considered [him] to be an eccentric, and his painting was hardly appreciated at all, but it was respected and everyone had a high regard for him.”

Cezanne had nonnegotiable requirements as a painter. He couldn’t stand anyone watching him paint; if someone came and stood behind him, he would pack his things and be off. All his sitters remarked on how still he insisted they remain and the large number of sittings he demanded. His gardener even complained that he didn’t have time to garden because he was always having to sit for his master. (In turn, Cezanne said the gardener couldn’t grow even a bean.) Many portraits were never finished. Always, minutes could pass between strokes of paint, yet many paintings have blank spots because Cezanne feared putting in a wrong tone. Tone was essential to his aesthetic. Monet recalled him placing a black hat and a white handkerchief beside the subject so he could gauge tone.

As Mr. Danchev makes clear at the end of his biography, posterity agrees with the estimates of Cezanne’s Impressionist peers. The English critic Roger Fry, an early admirer, praised his still lifes: “One may wonder whether painting has ever aroused graver, more powerful, more massive emotions than … Cezanne’s masterpieces in this genre.” The German philosopher Walter Benjamin loved the way his paintings “opened up corners and angles in which we believe we can localize crucial experiences of the past.”

The French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida summed up many assessments, writing, “The truth in painting is signed Cezanne.” Not only painters and critics, but writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsburg, and Samuel Beckett, have been awed by his work. Lawrence said “His struggle is truly heroic.” Beckett admired the way that he saw landscape as “material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever.”

Mr. Danchev’s biography is rich in such quotations, which are often a lesson in themselves. They would be less so without the many illustrations, usefully arranged so readers can compare them side-by-side. For example, no less than eight self-portraits are spread over facing pages, with further examples elsewhere. Similarly, paintings of bathers are shown together, as landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Equally useful is an exceptionally well-organized index.

This biography undoubtedly will be of interest to scholars, but its lively style and illuminating range of reference make a compelling narrative that will entice any reader with even the faintest of interest in the impressionists or paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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