Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is often called the father of modern painting, a tribute he shares with Claude Monet. The illegitimate son of a seamstress and a married Aix-en-Provence (France) landowner, Cézanne simultaneously studied drawing and law (his father's wish) at two separate schools. In 1861 he journeyed to Paris — against the wishes of his father and drawing instructor, but with the encouragement of his school chum, the novelist Émile Zola — to study at the Académie Suisse and with the Aix painter Joseph-François Villevielle. For the next eight years he alternated between studies in Paris and work in Aix, making two unsuccessful attempts to enter the prestigious École des Beaux Arts and denied entry to the annual Salon exhibitions, quarreling with his family, and acquiring a reputation as an artistic revolutionary. In 1869 he met Émélie Hortense Fiquet, who became his companion and the mother of his illegitimate son (facts his father later discovered by intercepting his son's mail) and wife in 1886. During 1872-81 Cézanne shifted residences around the Midi (at the towns of Auvers, Pontoise and Melun in south of France) but continued regular trips to Paris; he spent much time painting en plein air with his older friend and artistic supporter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) whom he called "like a father to me." Cézanne showed paintings at the Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1877, but remained an artistic outsider — refused by the Salons and disparaged in critical reviews. Although his reputation began to grow among collectors and avant-garde painters such as Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, he continued throughout his mature years to struggle with family problems and artistic direction. From around 1890 Cézanne became more irritable and reclusive (suffering from diabetes and depression), living off a stipend and then an inheritance from his wealthy father, and increasingly acclaimed as a master "Impressionist" painter, partly on the strength of an article by Gustave Geffroy in 1893. The professional art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939) mounted Cézanne's first one man show at his gallery in 1895, and thereafter provided Cézanne with staunch personal support and shrewd business guidance. By the time of his death, Cézanne exerted a profound influence on Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso, to name a few. For watercolorists he is a remarkable stylist, bringing together line, tint and expressive brushstrokes in an analytical and contemplative approach to the image.



Look first at this drawing of Ginger Jar and Fruit on a Table (c.1890, 24x36cm). The sturdily constructed pencil sketch is filled in only here and there with color. Not even filled in: the color areas are transparent and delicate, allowing the pencil drawing to stand on its own against Cézanne's favorite beige paper. (In the eyes of Cézanne's contemporaries, the large areas of unpainted paper were one of the most innovative features of his watercolors.) Notice the dissolving outline of the leaves in the upper right (the pattern on a panel screen), and the band of broken darks painted across the middle of the page. These form unifying accents, but also direct attention to the fruit at the front edge of the table, colorfully highlighted in a way that brings them forward, out of the paper, as if in the eyes of a man deciding which one to eat.

Cézanne's many pencil and watercolor studies are remarkable because his typical oil brush technique obliterated line under a patchwork of strokes, sometimes laid in even patterns like the scales on a butterfly's wing. In the drawings where he uses lines boldly, such as Large Pine, Study (1895, 28x44cm), line stands out as the structure underneath the brushstrokes with a wonderfully robust clarity. The monumental strength of the tree is conveyed by a rugged weight and fragmentation of line throughout the form, and in the blunt broken branches on the right contrasted with the long graceful limbs on the left. Softening this vigorous effect are the deliciously textured brushstrokes that render the pine needles cloaking the tree, and the large areas of bare beige paper.

With The Chateau Noir (c.1904, 41x53cm) we enter an artistic vision where line has almost disappeared. Typical of the style of Cézanne's late watercolors, the forms emerge through short dashed lines, or overlapping clusters of lines, that lightly identify the edges of tree limbs or masonry. The rest of the page swims with hundreds of overlapping patches of transparent pure color — aureolin, rose madder, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, viridian, cobalt blue, prussian blue and black — applied very much in the way Cézanne built up his late oils through thin glazes of paint. Forms are merely suggested by the modeling of color and the subtle variations in value, which cohere to represent a single vision of light — somber trees framing the glowing facade of the humble Cézanne family chateau. This recalls Cézanne's famous dictum: "the more harmonious the colors, the more precise the drawing." It is also a radical break from the thickly painted realism or atmospheric vagueness of contemporary Victorian watercolors.

The Cézanne (Harry N. Abrams, 1996) by Françoise Cachin and others contains the largest selection of watercolors I have seen; the notes are great, and the oil paintings are very well reproduced. There is a brief chapter on Cézanne's first exhibition in America in 1911 in Modern Art in America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (National Gallery of Art, 2001).