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Cezanne photo
Cézanne setting out to paint in Auvers, France, 1874 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne was born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence (ex-on-pro-VAHNCE), a small town in southeastern France. (The town is sometimes called Aix, and is in the region known as Provence.) He explored the countryside around Aix when he was growing up and felt closely linked to this landscape throughout his life. In his paintings he returned again and again to scenes he knew from childhood, including Mont Sainte-Victoire, the peak of a low range of mountains near Aix.

Cézanne studied painting and drawing in Aix. His father, a wealthy banker, discouraged his artistic career and persuaded him to enter law school. Cézanne later withdrew from law school and convinced his father to support his move to Paris, where he met Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and other artists who came to be known as the Impressionists. He worked alongside Pissarro, who encouraged him to paint outdoors and to concentrate on observing nature closely. From him, Cézanne learned to use lighter colors and smaller brushstrokes to capture the effects of sunlight. Cézanne showed his paintings with the Impressionists in 1874 and 1877.

After 1878, he spent much of the rest of his life painting in Provence. Relatively isolated from the Paris art scene, Cézanne pursued his own artistic path. While the Impressionists depicted changing light and atmospheric effects, he was more interested in studying the underlying structure of the landscapes he painted. He said, “I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art in museums.” Few of his works sold and he did not show his art publicly for almost twenty years.

Cézanne gradually achieved recognition later in life. In 1895 an art dealer in Paris showed a large number of his paintings at his first solo exhibition and public interest began to grow. Cézanne, who vowed to die painting, became ill after painting outdoors in Aix in 1906 and passed away soon afterward. The next year, he was honored with a large retrospective (an exhibition that shows an artist’s life work). His paintings continue to inspire artists today, over one hundred years later.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne

Mont Sainte-Victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-1904
Paul Cézanne, French
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Looking and Discussion Questions
  • Which parts of this landscape seem closest to you? Which seem farther away? How does the artist show that?
  • How would you describe the colors that Cézanne used?
  • Which parts of this painting are described in more detail? Which are less detailed?
  • Think about a place outdoors that you know well. Why might an artist return again and again to paint the same landscape?

Mont Sainte-Victoire is a mountain in Provence (pro-VAHNCE), the region in southeastern France where Cézanne was born and spent most of his life. It can be seen from a hillside near a studio called Les Lauves (lay loave) that Cézanne built in 1902. The mountain’s name, which translates as “Mountain of Holy Victory,” was associated with a celebrated victory by Provence’s ancient Roman inhabitants against an invading army. Cézanne painted more than sixty versions of what he called “his” mountain, yet none of the paintings looks exactly the same.

We can imagine Cézanne looking out over this landscape and noticing how the shapes of the rooftops or the profile of the mountain changed as he shifted his viewpoint. In this painting Cézanne was not concerned with reproducing the exact details of the scene before him. He hoped instead to create a “harmony parallel to nature.” We can see that goal fulfilled in his carefully harmonized patches of color that fit together like pieces in a mosaic.

No one is sure why Cézanne returned to this subject so often. The mountain stands out boldly from its surroundings, just as Cézanne stood apart from his fellow artists, and both are closely linked to the artist’s native Provence. Perhaps his many paintings of this mountain reflect his love of Provence, or his interest in discovering new aspects of a familiar place.

The same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place, by turning now more to the right, now more to the left. —Paul Cézanne in a letter to his son, 1906

Map of France showing sites in Provence where Cézanne lived and painted
Map of France showing sites in Provence where Cézanne lived and painted

Cézanne's Legacy

It is true that there is hardly one modern artist of importance to whom Cézanne is not father or grandfather, and that no other influence is comparable with his. —Clive Bell, English art critic, 1922

The French artist Paul Cézanne (say-ZAHN), who lived from 1839 to 1906, is widely considered to be the father of modern art. His life and work have inspired artists for over a century. Some were impressed by his single-minded pursuit of an artistic vision. Others were inspired by his close observation of nature. His distinctive approach to painting opened many possibilities for other artists to explore. In the painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire (above), for example, he used separate touches of paint to create a color harmony throughout his composition. Cézanne himself saw that other artists would build on his breakthroughs. “I point the way; others will come after,” he said.

One of those who came after Cézanne was the American artist Marsden Hartley. Hartley traveled from his home in Maine to New York City and Paris, where he studied Cézanne’s paintings. He also spent time in Cézanne’s hometown in France, even living briefly in a building that had once been his studio, all so that he could better understand this master painter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns many important works by Cézanne and by artists whom he inspired, including Marsden Hartley, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Piet Mondrian. Cézanne’s legacy is the subject of Cézanne and Beyond, a special exhibition on view at the Museum from February 26 to May 2009.

New Mexico Landscape by Marsden Hartley

New Mexico Landscape
New Mexico Landscape, 1919-1920
Marsden Hartley, American
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Looking and Discussion Questions
  • Compare New Mexico Landscape by Marsden Hartley to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. What do you think Hartley may have learned from Cézanne? What did he do differently?
  • Find some colors or shapes that repeat in New Mexico Landscape. How does Hartley use them to unify his composition?
  • Have you ever visited a place that was very different from your home? How could you depict its unique features in a painting or photograph?
Marsden Hartley, like Cézanne, tried to capture the essence of nature in his landscapes. Hartley was living in Europe when World War I broke out in 1914, and he began searching for distinctively American places after his return to the United States in 1915. He found them in New Mexico, whose Native American cultures and dramatic scenery offered a unique environment. Hartley lived in Taos and Santa Fe for several months, where he used pastels to draw the nearby mountains and deserts. They are unlike any of his previous work. Here is how he described his reaction to New Mexico:

It is the most intensely pristine landscape I personally have experienced...there is nothing in conventional esthetics that will express the red deposits, the mesas, and the Canyon of the Rio Grande, nothing in the world like them...New Mexico is essentially a major sensation, for my eye, at least. —Marsden Hartley, 1918

Arroyo Hondo
Arroyo Hondo, Valdez, 1918
Marsden Hartley (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection, 1978.21.56)
After the artist returned to New York City in 1919, he worked in his studio on oil paintings such as New Mexico Landscape based on his recollections. Hartley contrasted warm golden and pink tones of the desert landscape with isolated patches of green vegetation. In this carefully balanced composition the rounded mountains stand out clearly against the sky. A riverbed runs through the bottom of the painting, and there are no signs of human habitation anywhere.

Hartley believed that American artists would learn from firsthand contact with the landscapes of their own country, rather than imitating traditional artists, but he praised Cézanne, who was true to his own observations of nature:

America as landscape is profoundly stirring, and the American painters must first learn to arrive at firsthand contact with it. It shall not come by way of...conventional methods. It is nearer in Cézanne because he sought to establish the quality of reality, the understanding of solidity. —Marsden Hartley, 1918

Marsden Hartley
Marsden Hartley, 1916
Alfred Stieglitz, American
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Marsden Hartley, an American artist (1877–1943), was best known early in his career for landscape paintings of his native Maine. In 1909 he met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer who owned a prominent art gallery in New York City. Stieglitz took this photograph of Hartley and owned New Mexico Landscape before it entered the Museum’s collection.

With support from Stieglitz, Hartley traveled to Paris, where he admired paintings by Cézanne and other modern artists. He lived in Berlin, Germany, from 1913 to 1915. Soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Hartley fled Germany for the United States. A restless traveler throughout his life, Hartley returned to Europe in the 1920s and settled in Cézanne’s hometown of Aix, France. He even lived in a building that had once served as Cézanne’s studio, where he painted views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Hartley stayed in Provence for several years before returning to the United States. He spent his last years in Maine, where he painted landscapes, including Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak, as well as portraits of young men and groups of people.