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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

Follow the path to stardom of the creative Frenchman, Paul Cezanne, in this extensive biography covering his life and career in detail.

Paul Cézanne was born on the 19th of January 1839 on the Rue de l'Opéra, in Aix-en-Provence, France. On 22 February 1839, a full month after he was born, he was baptized and welcomed into the local parish church, where his grandmother and his uncle Louis became his godparents. Later in life he became a devout Catholic, something which is found back in his later paintings. His father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne (1798–1886), was the co-founder of banking firm Banque Cézanne et Cabassol and his mother, Anne Elisabeth Honorine Aubert (1814–1897), a homemaker. His parents also gave him two younger siblings. Marie Cézanne, born on 1841 and Rose Cézanne born on 1854.

They attended a primary school near their home together, until the age of 10, when Paul Cézanne changed schools and he started attending the Saint Joseph’s boarding school. Three years later, in 1852, he entered the Collège Bourbon where he met Émile Zola and Baptistin Baille. The three friends were known as ‘les trois inséparables’ (the three inseparables). Paul attended Collège Bourbon for six years. From 1858 to 1861, Cézanne attended law school at the University of Aix to comply with his father’s wishes, but he despised every moment of it. In 1861, after being strongly encouraged by Émile Zola, he left the school and fled to Paris to pursue the development of his artistic dreams.

Cézanne's move to Paris infuriated his father, but they later reconciled and Louis-Auguste started supporting his son’s career. His artistic dreams started early on, when he started receiving drawing lessons from a Spanish Monk, Joseph Gibert, during his college years. He carried on taking drawing lessons, even throughout his years at the University of Aix.

Paul Cézanne started out by painting landscapes, in the beginning he started with fields from his imagination, but later on he moved to actual places in and around Aix-en-Provence and Paris. He has painted and drawn well over two hundred pieces on this subject. In his late watercolours and landscapes he developed a magical series of brushstrokes that looked like dragonfly wings, ever shifting, overlapping and breaking apart before coming back together again. Cubism was not far off.

After his move to Paris, Cézanne also started painting models and objects, but with a difference, something which he became a master in and is now widely known for. His first known painting including models is ‘Judgment of Paris’. A painting he is thought to have completed in 1862, just after moving to the city. In 1863 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte the 3rd (born Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte; 20 April 1808 – 9 January 1873), created the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects in French), where paintings rejected by the Paris Salon were to be displayed.

After submitting one of his paintings for the first time in 1864, and subsequently being rejected by the Salon, Cézanne's painting was displayed in the new Salon des Refusés. He continued to submit his work to the Salon every year until 1882, when he finally successfully submitted ‘Portrait de M. L. A.’, which is thought to be ‘Portrait of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, The Artist's Father, Reading L'Événement’ painted in 1866, his only successful submission to the Salon.

When the Franco-Prussian War started in July 1870, Cézanne and his model/mistress, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, escaped Paris because Cézanne didn’t want to go to war and settled in L'Estaque, a small seaside village near Marseilles, where he started to mainly paint landscapes again. The couple moved back to Paris in February 1871 when the war had ended. At the end of the 1880s, a small group of painters tried to find new ways of expressing emotions rather than straight forward visuals. They concentrated on themes with a deeper meaning. Through the use of more plain colours and precise forms. This form of painting and drawing became known as Post-Impression.

While being the eldest of the known painters to commit to this new form of art, Paul Cézanne wasn’t the only one to take on this form of painting. Among him were Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). Following contrasting stylistic paths in search of new intellectual and artistic achievements, these artists are now called Post-Impressionists. While they did not see themselves as part of a shared movement at the time, they definitely were. On the 28th of April 1886, in the presence of his parents, Cézanne married his model/mistress, Marie-Hortense Fiquet. Although he made it known publicly that he no longer had feelings for her.

Marie-Hortense Fiquet- Cézanne had to live separated from her husband for a large part of their married life. Paul Cézanne and Marie-Hortense Fiquet had a son together in 1872, also named Paul Cézanne (1872—1947). They kept the birth a secret from Louis-Auguste Cézanne, as he did not approve of Paul marrying Marie. Paul Cézanne told his father he had a grandson shortly before Louis-Auguste’s death in 1886. Louis-Auguste's death left Paul a wealth most artists could only dream of. He inherited 400,000 francs, ridding him of all of the financial worries most artists live by.

Although Cézanne continued to paint his wife until the 1890s, he disinherited her. Their one child inherited his father's entire estate. The settlement that Marie-Hortense Fiquet received from her son was squandered by her through her gambling. Unlike other artists, Cézanne painted all subject matters. Still lives, landscapes, bathers, and things from his imagination. But no matter what he painted, Paul was a devout Catholic at heart, and his religion influenced his work. He once said; “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

Before 1895 Cézanne had his paintings exhibited two times with the Impressionists. Several individual paintings were exhibited at various other venues, until 1895, when a Parisian art dealer gave him his first solo exhibition. Despite his ever-growing public recognition and monetary success, Cézanne carried on painting in his beloved Aix-en-Provence, far from Paris. Ultimately, he became one of the most influential artists in the history of twentieth-century painting, and has inspired generations of modern artists.

On the 15th of October 1906, at the age of 67, he was out working on one of his landscapes out in a field where he got caught out in a storm. He carried on for another two hours in the pouring rain before deciding to go home. On his way there he collapsed and was picked up by a passing driver of a laundry cart who brought him home. His old housekeeper stayed by his side and continuously rubbed his limbs to restore circulation in his cold body, after a while he miraculously regained consciousness.

Feeling only slightly better the next day, he was intent on resuming his work, but collapsed once again. The model he was working with called for help and Paul Cézanne was put back to bed in his house on Rue Boulegon, a mere 650 meters from the street where he was born. He never woke up again, dying a few days later, on the 22nd of October, from the results of pneumonia. He was buried at the Saint-Pierre Cemetery in Aix-en-Provence, where he still lies to this day, among many other famous painters and sculptors.

Tourist and art lovers alike can now follow a dedicated guided tour around Aix-en-Provence named ‘In the steps of Cézanne’, which takes visitors around all the landmarks made famous by Paul Cézanne. His life can be followed from his place of birth to his final resting place, and everything in between.