Paul Cézanne: The Father of Modern Art
Though undervalued in his own lifetime, Paul Cézanne would go on to earn renown as the progenitor of modern art for fundamentally changing how subsequent generations approached the act of painting. During the late 19th century when Cézanne was actively working, the Western art world remained firmly rooted in traditional allegorical and history painting that aimed to recreate scenes, often of an idealized past. Yet Cézanne took an altogether more analytical approach in his body of work that prioritized realizing sensations on the canvas through form, color, and shifting perspective over accurately copying reality.
This intense focus on developing a new artistic language laid the foundation for the seismic shift away from classical modes of painting that blossomed into various avant-garde movements after the turn of the century. The seeds Cézanne planted with his formally inventive still lifes, landscape studies, and portrait series took on an almost religious reverence in the eyes of trailblazing modernists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse who drove art towards abstraction. Though the full extent of Cézanne’s contributions went largely unheralded during his lifetime, a 1907 retrospective exhibition exposed the sheer scale and progression of his oeuvre to a new generation, cementing his legacy as the progenitor of modern art.
Much as Samuel Courtauld recognized Cézanne’s genius during the 1930s when collecting his works amid waning popularity in Britain, we too must rediscover and reevaluate the father of modern art from a contemporary vantage point. For Cézanne fundamentally altered the trajectory of art in ways that continue to impact how we perceive and interpret creative expression over a century later.
Cézanne's Innovative Style and Technique
Cézanne is instantly recognizable for his characteristic brushwork and distortions that seemed to flout the conventions of painting in 19th century France. Rather than smoothly blending tones to create realistic depictions, Cézanne built up his compositions through layered patches of color applied in short, deliberate strokes of the brush. This scrappy, constructed style lent his works a distinct texture and energy that matched his rugged personality.
The very surface of Cézanne's paintings reveal his unique process and priorities. As described in the sources, his method involved realizing sensations on the canvas through form, color, and shifting planes rather than accurately copying from nature. Cézanne sought to capture the very essence of his subjects, be they apples, bathers, or his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. To achieve this, he experimented extensively with distorting perspective and proportion to get at underlying geometrical order.
His still life paintings demonstrate well his pioneering use of color. Cézanne's tables overflow with fruits and dishes, but rather than modeling forms through delicate light and shadow, he builds them up through contrasting hues like blues and oranges. Similarly, his landscapes use color as structure, with patches of green, gold, and lavender delineating planes. In his works, color gains equal weight to line and form.
Over his career, Cézanne steadily developed this analytical approach that fractured and recombined sensations from the observable world. Earlier quasi-Impressionist experiments focused on capturing ephemeral light effects gave way to more radically abstracted scenes expressed through color and shape alone. The progression of his style, despite periods of doubt and destruction, ultimately pioneered a completely new artistic perspective. His body of work laid the foundation for revolutionizing painting into modern art.
Cézanne's Most Iconic Works
Though he remained relatively unknown for much of his career, Cézanne produced several now-legendary paintings that stand as emblematic of his pioneering style and far-reaching influence.
His series of works depicting peasants immersed in games of cards epitomize his mature style. Through multiple versions, Cézanne explores the subjects from varying angles, with The Card Players (1890–1892) in the Musée d'Orsay representing the theme's apex. The composition reduces the men to geometric essentials, with rounded backs echoing the table edge and tilted hats paralleling slanted pipes. By deconstructing the figures and scene through patches of color and abstract planes, Cézanne lays the very foundations of Cubism and modern abstraction decades ahead of his time.
The mountain near his hometown of Aix-en-Provence became Cézanne's personal monument, with over 80 depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire completed over decades. He captured the landscape in varying light conditions and from contrasting perspectives, each time breaking down the vista into its basic shapes and colors. Works like Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry (c. 1897) exemplify his radically new reinterpretation of nature through color and form.
Cézanne's Bathers series reached its peak in this grand-scale painting of nude figures in a landscape, exuding a timeless, monumental quality. Considered a masterpiece of modern art, The Large Bathers (1895-1905) took Cézanne over a decade to complete. The distorted, abstracted bodies and dappled brushwork that fuse human forms with the landscape announced a profoundly new way of representing the world, setting Cézanne apart.
Though less renowned, Cézanne's still lifes were crucial in developing his analytical approach to painting. Works like Still Life with Apples and Oranges (c. 1895-1900) showcase his revolutionary eye for color and form. The vivid oranges and deep greens create dynamic tensions, while the table edges tilt and apples bulge, subtly subverting reality. In his still lifes, Cézanne liberated objects from fidelity to nature through pioneering use of color and shape.
Though undervalued during his lifetime, Cézanne's analytical approach to realizing sensations on the canvas proved profoundly influential for successive avant-garde movements. His fragmented planes and faceted brushwork foreshadowed the fracturing of form seen in Cubism and Abstract art. The Fauves, meaning "wild beasts," took inspiration from the vivid hues and liberated use of color pioneered by Cézanne.
As attested by their effusive praise, Cézanne attained an almost god-like status among the trailblazing modernists who drove art towards abstraction. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and others made pilgrimages to retrospectives of his work, studying the geometric deconstructions that reduced landscapes and figures to essentials of color and shape. Picasso went so far as to purchase the land containing Mont Sainte-Victoire, while Matisse called Cézanne "the father of us all".
Appreciation for Cézanne's works continues today, with his paintings achieving record prices at auction. His Card Players sold in 2011 for over $250 million dollars, one of the highest sums ever paid for art. Museums like MoMA and the National Gallery of Art have entire collections dedicated to Cézanne. Scholarship on the father of modern art also continues to develop our understanding of how his radical perspective fundamentally altered the course of art.
This article explores how Paul Cézanne, despite lacking mainstream success during his lifetime, fundamentally changed painting's trajectory through his characteristic style and iconic works. It discusses his influence on later modern masters and why his contributions matter for rediscovering one overlooked father of modern art.