On the first day of art school in our first foundation class, our professor, a grey-bearded sage in brown corduroys, casually mentioned that Cézanne had already achieved everything in painting, so this was probably just a hopeless exercise. In terror, we squeezed out the assigned palette and studied a table of fruit in the middle of the room. In the library later, I checked what I was up against. “With an apple I will astonish Paris,” wrote Cézanne. For his innovation, his work was rejected seventeen times by the Paris Salon before a fellow artist intervened. He had one painting, a portrait of his father, accepted for the first and last time in 1882.
Today, in Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, I’m once again studying an arrangement of apples. The inanimate objects he loved — olive oil bottles, jugs and pitchers, skulls, linens with fruit and flowers – are refreshed and placed almost as he left them in 1906. After Cézanne died, the building was left to his son and later sold, restored and given to the city of Aix. The room nourishes an artist’s spiritual and practical needs: natural light and airiness, with high plaster ceilings, a flat file and heavy easel. The still-life objects and the nearby mountain muse, Mont Sainte-Victoire, were easy companions for Cézanne’s private, glacially-paced working style. Loading his brush in the quest to capture a subject’s whole essence, his tentative strokes bore the burden of desired truth. Each could take hours or days to find its moment, to form an at-once succulent and weighty experience, yet still float like magic.
The studio is tucked halfway up what was a dirt road in 1902 called Chemin des Lauvres — the route to a rocky plateau in the crook of an abandoned ochre quarry overlooking Aix. Having sold his family estate after his mother’s death, Cézanne, now in his sixties, respected and flush, bought some land and commissioned a studio with a wall-sized window that could be opened to slide larger canvases out into his garden, including the hefty Les Grandes Baigneuses. Struggling with diabetes and off again with his former model and mistress Marie-Hortense Fiquet, Cézanne secluded himself for what would be his last four years. “He cleaned away from pictorial art all the mold that time had deposited upon it,” wrote Paul Sérusier. “He restored all that was sound, pure, and classic.”
PS: “I have come only to show the way.” (Paul Cézanne)
Esoterica: In Aix, it’s an all-day magic hour. The long shadows stripe the paths, cafés and squares with lavender and gold. The streets wend towards the pines and vineyards until the blocky triangle of Mont Sainte-Victoire juts into the blue. “Art is a harmony parallel with nature,” wrote Cézanne. He painted his mountain sixty times or so, bridging Impressionism to Cubism, working and reworking to understand and get his mission right: “Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.” In the corner of his studio, I saw a rack of frames of different sizes just like my dad used to keep at the ready and felt for a moment the agony of his absence. I strode out into the garden through the deeper woods and towards the long shadow.
“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” (Paul Cézanne)
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Art practice will encourage intuitive use of color and expressive mark-making with emphasis on process. Materials provided or you can bring your own.
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There’s a hush… a palpable electric presence radiating from some of the paintings in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the galleries of the Frick Collection.