Paul Cézanne’s ‘Self-portrait with Soft Hat’ (c1890-94)
Paul Cézanne’s ‘Self-portrait with Soft Hat’ (c1890-94)

The Letters of Paul Cézanne, edited and translated by Alex Danchev, Thames & Hudson, RRP£29.95/J Paul Getty Museum, RRP$39.95, 392 pages

Im here with the foulest people on earth, those who make up my family.” “All my compatriots are arseholes beside me.” “Do you expect me to believe in anything at my age? Besides, I am as good as dead.” “Nothing new here, not the least little suicide.” “The world doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand the world, that’s why I’ve withdrawn from it.”

No artist perfected the persona of the brusque, reclusive genius better than Paul Cézanne. As lofty and uncompromising as his Mont Sainte-Victoire, he mesmerised his contemporaries (“C’est un sauvage!”), then was canonised as the emblem of 20th-century angst: the poet Rilke praised his “constant rage”, Picasso his “inquietude” and Heidegger his “terror”, adding “If only one could think as directly as Cézanne painted!”

Cézanne’s directness – the balance, pictorial logic, simplification of natural forms to geometric essentials – laid the foundations of modern art. The process was anything but schematic: Cézanne lived obsessively by the belief that “painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realising one’s sensations”. That introspective lucidity nearly destroyed him.

“I find myself in such a state of brain trouble, trouble so great that I fear my feeble reason may desert me at any moment”, Cézanne wrote – a month before his death in 1906 – to the painter Emile Bernard. “Will I reach the goal I’ve sought so hard and pursued for so long? I hope so . . . I continue my studies – but I’ve just reread your letter and I see that I always reply off the point. Please excuse me, as I’ve said, the reason is my constant preoccupation with the goal to be attained. Warm regards from the pigheaded old macrobite who sends you cordial greetings.”

A century on, when mouse mats and mugs are inscribed with the artist’s misanthropic soundbites, Cézanne’s letters surprise by their variety of tone. Self-doubt and torment are there, but also clearsightedness, courtesy, emotional commitment, gentle humour – and thrilling frankness about his creative life. Newly translated by his biographer Alex Danchev into fresh, vivid English that nonetheless conveys the idiomatic, idiosyncratic style – and crucially the politesse – of Cézanne’s French, the complete letters in this volume reveal a multifaceted personality far more engaging than the cranky existential hero of modern myth. They form the most moving correspondence by an artist that I have ever read.

Although by no means a day-to-day account of thoughts and feelings like Van Gogh’s extensive exchanges with his brother, the 250-plus letters in this volume offer a longer, deeper record – spanning half a century of resolve and desperation. Against a lively intellectual/domestic backcloth (reading Baudelaire, swapping tomato recipes with Madame Renoir), they chart Cézanne’s uneven passage from timid yet exhilarated youth in Aix-en-Provence, his adventures in Paris, to splendid middle-aged isolation in Aix (“when you are born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough”) and the focus, aged 56, of a first solo show. After it, Cézanne became painting’s intransigent elder statesman, refuting adulation (“I’m very irritated at the gall of my compatriots who liken themselves to me as artists, and who want to get their hands on my studies”), and calling himself still “the Provençal for whom old age has come before maturity”.

At the heart of the book lies the relationship with Emile Zola, Cézanne’s friend from Aix’s Collège Bourbon, where the future artist won prizes for Latin and Greek (quotations from Horace and Virgil unexpectedly pepper his prose) but never for drawing. Zola was weedy, fatherless and foreign, and sturdy Cézanne protected him. By their late teens, when they are quoting classical verses and dreaming of girls, the position is reversed. Zola the optimist courts success in Paris and persuades “Paulus Cezasinus” to join him; Cézanne, “gripped by a certain internal sadness”, is doubtful, dependent on his authoritarian father, and soon becomes embroiled in financial and sexual secrets as thick as any in Zola’s novels.

Yet, “you know, if I’d been a good jumper, I would have touched the ceiling”, he writes at the prospect of seeing Zola again. And two decades later: “When I can talk to you face-to face, I’ll ask if your opinion is the same as mine on painting as a means of expressing feeling.” Zola sympathises (“your joys and your sorrows belong to me”), foots bills for Cézanne’s mistress Hortense and son Paul (concealed from his family for years) and plays postman (a “service which is I think tiny for you and vast for me”) during Cézanne’s 1885 liaison with the unknown woman who is the recipient of the artist’s single surviving love letter. Then in 1886 Zola published The Masterpiece, casting his friend as the failed painter Lantier, and the two never spoke again.

Months later, Cézanne’s father died, and the artist married stolid, uneducated Hortense; her letters, published here for the first time, show a loyal if conventional wife (“My husband continues to apply himself to the landscape with a tenacity deserving of a better fate”). The couple rarely lived together, and Cézanne now got support from a younger circle – half-embraced, half-loathed.

“Painter by inclination” he signed himself to critic Gustave Geffroy when arranging portrait sittings. Was he riffing on his still-modest reputation, or on critical complaints that objects in his paintings look twisted, lopsided, askew? He distanced his dealer Ambroise Vollard (“I will keep you apprised of the results as soon as my work offers me a trace of satisfaction”) and corresponded erratically with his son (“when I forget to write to you, it’s because I lose track of time a little. My nervous system must be much weakened, I live as if in a dream”). He wrote to apologise to Joachim Gasquet, a writer angry with him for not communicating: “if you could but see inside me, the man within, you would not be. You do not see then the sad state to which I am reduced”.

Gasquet’s memoir subsequently proclaimed that Cézanne “had no friends except trees”. These letters give the lie to that claim, while insisting on the singularity and isolation of Cézanne’s vision. “I have perhaps come too soon”, he told artist Gustave Heiries in 1901. “I was the painter of your generation more than my own. You are young . . . As for me, I’m getting old. I won’t have time to express myself. Let’s get to work.”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article