In the long shadow


Dear Artist,

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.


“Compotier, Glass and Apples, 1880”
oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm
by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)

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.


“Vase of Flowers and Apples” 1879-80
oil on canvas by Paul Cezanne

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.”


“Mont Sainte Victoire” 1897
oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
by Paul Cezanne



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.


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“Genius is the ability to renew one’s emotions in daily experience.” (Paul Cézanne)




  1. I loved your writeup! I had the good fortune to visit Cezanne’s studio a year ago and your article and images made it come alive for me! Thankyou!!

  2. I visited Cezanne’s studio some years ago – a spellbinding and unforgettable experience, for things looked exactly as they do in the old photographs.
    As you say, Sara, many of the objects which formed part of his still lifes are there yet. The striking thing is how very mundane and ordinary they are. Yet in the paintings they are somehow transformed.
    ‘How’ is beyond my ability to say. Some kind of alchemy that only Cezanne possessed is the best I can do.
    What comes over (amongst many other things) is the simple message: it doesn’t matter much what you use as a subject. What matters is what you do with it.

  3. Thank you for another inspiring column. It must take up a lot of your time to continue with these fabulous letters. You continue to inspire so many artists and aspiring artists, you are doing a wonderful job. Your Dad would be so proud of you, as well as your Mom and siblings are. I look forward to each and every new post and am amazed how you come up with so many interesting topics. I did not know Cezanne’s art was rejected by the Paris Salon seventeen times, imagine continuing on with your work after that many discouraging rejections. Cheers that he continued on and we can study his wonderful art. At least he had the funds to carry on with his art and not succumb to the critique of others.

  4. Thanks Sara. It is 35 years since my own father passed and that gut ripping pain hits just the same out of the blue when something seems to take me back just as you describe. Your moment with the frames took me there with you. Bittersweet to remember.

    • Yes I feel the same, and with my father and other loved ones too, gone but never forgotten. I am so grateful for your writing, and the feelings touched within, and the memories they bring back to me. A friend had a very similar experience when she visited his studio, and so again, this time by you, I am inspired to visit his studio. Thank you for your wonderful letters.

  5. “I have come only to show the way”? The guy had a real ego and it was inflated with more than a smidge of pomposity.

  6. Sara, thank you so very much for continuing in your dad’s path of inspiring us all. There is almost always some nugget of inspriation or truth that validates my own style, which is, in this case, like Cezanne, is “glacially slow”, while I seek just the right color or stroke. I have always felt terribly guilty about being so slow. When in a class, half the students will be done with their painting before I’ve hardly begun. It was your dad you made me realize that learning to paint, to make good art (nevermind great art) is a lifetime endeavor.

    • Virginia Urani on

      Love your letter, Sara and so glad you share with us. The quote by Cezanne … “Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations” felt familiar. I love painting the wildflowers which bloom almost year round here in NC and I often say, I am not trying to paint an illustration of the flowers look, but instead how they feel … Cezanne’s quote made me think it is indeed, how I feel them that I paint.

  7. Having travelled to Aix several times, I regret not having been interested in the ‘hows and techniques’ of painting that I now am since becoming an artist. Too bad I missed so much that was literally at my fingertips. I’ll just have to return there! And to other such places of learning.

    And this day, I would like to acknowledge not only how much I enjoy Sara’s missives, but also the readers’ websites that are embedded in their entries. It is exciting for me to ‘stalk’ (just joking) many of the artists’ works through this Twice-Weekly Letters forum. I learn so much from all of you simply by looking and seeing. Many thanks to Sara and to you, my online mentors.


  8. That art teacher was probably quoting/mis-quoting from Kimon NIcolaide’s classic book ‘The Natural Way to Draw’ (1964) :
    “There is no such thing as starting off from where Cézanne left off. You have to start where he started… At the beginning.”
    I had a teacher in my foundation year who quoted this at me as well. Some 40 years year on, now an art teacher myself as well, I still think on this… but am less certain exactly where the beginning is. Don’t we follow on in the foot steps of those who have gone before us, even if we aren’t at same height as them? Cézanne taught me to paint… partly becuase he left a lot of unfinished paintings, so I could see how he went about making a painting.

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