Cézanne: ‘The Father of Modern Art’

Jacky Klein

Paul Cézanne is one of the best-loved painters of Western art. Yet the popularity of his still life and landscape works has perhaps tamed the radicality of his vision in our own eyes. It is easy to forget that these seemingly traditional 19th century Post-Impressionist paintings caused ‘a landslide in art’.

Jacky Klein explains why we should see the ‘painter of apples’ as a pioneer for initiating new ways of looking and thinking about art. She uses Cézanne’s works in the Courtauld collection to trace how his style developed through the 1870s–1890s, pushing the frontiers of what painting could do, despite being met with derision in his own times.

Looking at Cézanne’s output afresh, Klein makes the case for the painter as being ‘father of Modern art’, his works inspiring countless Modern and contemporary masters since.

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Paul Cézanne is probably one of the most famous artists of all time.

Picasso said ‘he was our one and only master’. He’s best known, I think, as a painter of still life and landscape. He also excelled in portraiture. He’s seen now, I think, as a sort of quite traditional 19th century painter. There’s far more to him, far more going on there under the surface.

The very famous Art Historian E. H. Gombrich actually called Cézanne’s  work a landslide in art and that’s exactly it, it started this massive sort of, torrent of new ways  of looking and new ways of thinking about the world.

At the Courtauld gallery here in London, there’s an incredible selection, really the best selection you’ll find anywhere in the UK of Cézanne’s works. And that’s because Samuel Courtauld, who was the founder of the Courtauld Institute in 1932, was a major devotee of Cézanne at a time when, in Britain, Cézanne was not seem as fashionable at all. The works in the Courtauld really completely undercut that idea of Cézanne as quite a traditional, Classical 19th century painter. They show an amazing progression, from the 1870s through to the 1890s, he died in 1906, and they show that actually what he did was nothing less than introduced the world to the beginnings of Modern art.

So this is a painting called The Tall Trees at the Jas de Buffon and it was made in around 1883. This was a really important moment because Cézanne had basically just fled Paris after failing, by any artistic standards of the 1870s and early 80s to make his mark. This was his father’s estate near Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. Cézanne was at this stage already in his forties, but he had to basically go home and go back to Aix-en-Provence with his tail between his legs. This was the beginning of him having a life really as pretty much a recluse, from the fashionable capital of Paris, and from the centre of contemporary art.

He did show with the Impressionists a couple of times in the 1870s. On the surface, a picture like this could look Impressionist. It’s an outdoor scene, all of the Impressionist painters like Monet and Pissarro painted en plein air it was called, out in the open air. You can feel the wind kind of rustling through the trees here, and there’s something very peaceful and calm, but at the same time, if you look closely, there’s actually lots of strange things going on.

The trees on the right, you can see all the way up  from the base of the bark up to the foliage, but on the left there’s this swathe of brown tree that looks like it fits with the trunk to the left of it, and it looks like its popping out from the middle of the leaves, and doesn’t make any sense to be there. It wasn’t about showing that there are four trees here in this particular sequence, because the angles are strange, and in fact, art historians have gone back to the scene at the Jas de Buffon and tried to recreate or photograph exactly where this painting might have been made from, and it’s basically impossible because you realise how much artistic licence there was in what he was doing.

And that, I think, was very much because Cézanne was trying to not get just to  express the impression of a scene. But actually to get to its kind of essence if you like. The Impressionists had this sort of lovely wafty, airy sense of shimmering light and water and colour, but this is actually aggressively structured, when you look at the surface of the paint. There are sort of swabs of green all over the surface and dabs of orange, which are not in any way blended – you can see individual brushstrokes, and that was because Cézanne was really trying to get at the heart of something that was not Impressionist at all, which was the idea of structure in paintings. This picture shows the beginnings of the revolution that he would undertake in painting.

Works like this were met with almost complete derision and mockery at the time. There were critics who said basically children can draw better than this and can paint better than this and obviously Cézanne is doing this as some kind of a joke because he just can’t paint.

Cézanne was quite a difficult person. He had very good friends among the painters in Paris, like Pissarro and Renoir, but even Renoir described Cézanne as being as prickly as a hedgehog. What that meant was, that he didn’t care. He had a real disregard for popular opinion. And that meant, in many ways, he could go and furrow his own path. That he could just say, actually, I’m going to make things that respond to how I experience the world, and how I feel about something.

This is a painting called Lac D’Annecy, the Lake at Annecy, which was a place in the French Alps where Cézanne spent the summer in 1896 with his wife and his son for a summer holiday. This I think, shows the huge leap forward that Cézanne made between the 1880s and the 1890s. But it’s much more abstracted, the picture surface is much more broken up than the Tall Trees. He was quite disparaging in a way about the picturesque quality of the views. He wrote that that this sort of view of the lake was sort of like the kind of art we’ve been used to look at in the albums of young lady travellers. So what he did instead was create something that has a sort of solid dense feel to it.  Despite not being too large in size, it’s actually monumental. It has kind of heft and depth. We have got a view of the lake, and the castle is centre-stage in the background, the image is framed by a tree at the left, curving rather beautifully, but everything else about it is the complete opposite of the picturesque. The whole picture surface is almost like one plane that he works on, and even though you get a sense of depth, from where we are standing as the viewer, through to the lake and across to the castle, beyond that in the background, things get very hazy. It’s really unclear where things recede and where they jut forwards towards us. Cézanne was again doing something very radical because ever since the Renaissance, artists had been taught and had followed the route of very clearly showing perspective points, something further away was smaller, something closer to you was bigger and he throws all of that out of the window. There are these wonderful highlight points that you get at the side of the mountain, and at the side of the castle, very sharp rays of probably morning light, but in the background there’s just washes of colour and it’s really difficult to tell what’s in front of what, what’s behind what. He was completely flouting the norms for perspective, creating instead, a structure built up from these individual swabs of mostly blue colour.

Cézanne wrote in a letter which went on to inspire a lot of younger artists, when  he was advising about how to paint landscape, he said, “Treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone. Nature is more depth than surface.” I think what you  really see here is underpinning the landscape, this incredible sense of the geometry of the world.

Cézanne was the sort of painter who went back to the same subjects again and again and again, particularly the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the big mountain that overlooks Aix-en-Provence where he was from. I think what Cézanne had done in the intervening decade or so,  is just continue to experiment and experiment and experiment. And by coming back to the same subjects, like the Jas du Buffon, like the Mont Saint-Victoire, like his apples,  he was able just to push the boundaries further and further. And he really builds a language that is very much his own. I think a picture like this, is a sort of triumphant climax of Cézanne’s  quest to find a new language in landscape.

Still life was in a way, the most experimental area of Cézanne’s painting. There are hundreds of paintings of jugs, of flowers, of apples, he in fact became known as the painter of apples. Perhaps it was going back time and time again to these same objects that gave him the confidence to actually push the boundaries of painting to its absolute limits.

So this is Cézanne’s Still Life with Plaster Cast from 1894, in theory this is a very simple image of a plaster cast on a table with some fruit and some onions. But actually when you look more closely, you start to see all sorts of instabilities and inaccuracies if you like, from how it must have appeared in real life. So, for example, you have the table-top square, at the front here but the floor behind recedes at this weird, vertiginous angle that couldn’t possibly be right. You’ve got an apple that looks like  it’s rolled along the floor, but it’s the same size as the apples in the foreground on the table. And again, things morph into each other. So the onion here, in the front, the foliage of the onion becomes the table leg in that still life painting. You’ve also got paintings just within the painting. So there’s canvases stacked up in the background, and for example, the blue fabric here, on the table at the front, reappears in a painted still life in the back. Everything about this picture is off-kilter and doesn’t quite work, and yet it’s all held together in this sort of trembling sense of equilibrium. Cézanne really was trying to get us to look and to know that this wasn’t an image of reality, this was a painted version of reality that came from his imagination and his vision. Reality is fractured, we see things simultaneously from different angles, we move, the light shifts, and suddenly we see something differently.

The multiple, complex viewpoints, and the multi-layered approach that Cézanne brought to a picture like this, was absolutely the kind of thing that directly influenced the Cubists. He had a profound influence, and ongoing influence, through the lives of artists like Picasso and Braque, and then beyond that to Giacometti, and Mondrian and others. And that sense of breaking up the picture surface, the Cubists particularly who took that idea of strange angles, and the juxtapositions of unexpected things, and having to do a double-take to a much greater extreme. Beyond the Cubists, and that first generation of Modern artists, Cézanne has continued to influence artists through even to today.

Cézanne was an absolutely brilliant and radical colourist and contemporary artists like Ellsworth Kelly, who have gone completely abstract with single or multiple blocks of colour, took that inspiration from Cézanne. The sculptor Richard Serra even bought a postcard of this very painting when he came to the Courtauld gallery, and keeps it by his bedside, and looks at it every night for inspiration. And I think knowing what a profound influence Cézanne had on so many later artists does give a sense that his reputation needs to be looked at afresh.

His painting was incredibly courageous, it was made outside the centre point of culture and fashionability, he just moved to the South of France and did it all himself. And I think Giacometti had it quite right in saying that Cézanne didn’t seek to be original or Modern, but in a way he actually was the most Modern and original artist.  He wasn’t just a 19th century painter of apples and of mountains, or an Impressionist, or just a Post-Impressionist. As much as people say that Manet or Courbet or even Goya were the founders of Modern art, I think at least alongside them, if not pushing them off the perch, should be Cézanne.

With thanks to…

The Courtauld Gallery



Alamy Stock Photo

AP Archive

Bridgeman Images

Getty Images



Audio Network

9 Lives Music


Full list of Artworks Shown



Paul Cézanne, 1890

Musée d’Orsay

© photo musée d’Orsay / rmn


The Card Players

Paul Cézanne, 1890-1892

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


Still Life with Apples

Paul Cézanne, 1895-1898

The Museum of Modern Art



Paul Cézanne, c.1890

Musée d’Orsay

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski



Paul Cézanne, 1875

Musée d’Orsay


Boy in a Red Waistcoat

Paul Cézanne, 1888-1890

The National Gallery of Art


Still Life with Onions

Paul Cézanne, c.1896-1898

Musée d’Orsay

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


Madam Cézanne in a Red Armchair

Paul Cézanne, c.1877

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



Etang des Soeurs, Osny

Paul Cézanne, 1875

Courtauld Institute of Art


Card Players

Paul Cézanne, c. 1892-1896

Courtauld Institute of Art


Samuel Courtauld

Unknown photographer, n.d.

The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Courtauld Institute of Art


Montagne Sainte-Victoire

Paul Cézanne, c.1887

Courtauld Institute of Art


Trees in a Park, Jas de Bouffan

Paul Cézanne, 1885-1887

Pushkin Museum of Fine Art


Tall Trees at the Jas de Bouffan

Paul Cézanne, 1885-1887

The Courtauld Institute of Art


Paul Cézanne

Unknown photographer, c.1875


Poplars at Giverny, Sunrise

Claude Monet, 1888

The Museum of Modern Art


The Bazincourt Wash House

Camille Pissarro, 1900

Musée d’Orsay


Les Grands Arbres au Jas de Bouffan

John Rewald, 1935

Scan from: Pavel Machotka, ‘Cézanne: Landscape into Art’ Prague: Arbor Vitae, 2014


Chestnut Tree in Blossom

Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1881

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


House of Père Lacroix

Paul Cézanne, 1873

The National Gallery of Art


A Modern Olympia

Paul Cézanne, 1869-1870

Private Collection


Paul Cézanne in Provence

Emile Bernard, c.1905


Portrait of Paul Cézanne

Camille Pissarro, 1874

Musee Bonnat, Bayonne, France



Paul Cézanne, c.1890

E.G. Bührle Foundation


The Lake d’Annecy

Paul Cézanne, 1896

The Courtauld Institute of Art


Le Lac d’Annecy

Unknown photographer, 1896

Collection Alain Mothe: R805


Landscape with Merchants

Claude Lorrain, c. 1629

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.



Paul Cézanne, c.1904

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The George W. Elkins Collection, 1936




Paul Cézanne, c.1887

The Courtauld Institute of Art


Still-life with Statuette

Paul Cézanne, c.1890s

National Museum, Sweden


Still Life with Apples

Paul Cézanne, 1893-1894

The Getty Museum


Still Life with Apples

Paul Cézanne, 1895-1898

The Museum of Modern Art


Still Life with Milk jug and Fruit

Paul Cézanne, c.1900


Still Life with Apples and Pears

Paul Cézanne, c.1891-1892


Still life with a Plaster Cast

Paul Cézanne, 1894


Still-Life with Grapes, Clarinet and a Fan

Georges Braque, 1911

The Metropolitan Museum of Art



Pablo Picasso, 1911-1912

The Kröller-Müller Museum

© Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018.


Still Life with Gingerpot II

Piet Mondrian, 1911-1912

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum


Still Life with Guitar

Juan Gris, 1913

The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Still Life with Apples and Oranges

Paul Cézanne, 1895

Musée d’Orsay



Jasper Johns, 1977

© Jasper Johns/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Cafeteria at the Grand Palais

Howard Hodgkin, 1975


The Bridge of Trois-Sautets

Paul Cézanne, 1906

Cincinnati Museum of Art


Orange-Red Relief (For Delphine Seyrig)

Ellsworth Kelly, 1990

Museo Reina-Sofia, Madrid


Young girl looking at art piece by Ellsworth Kelly, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Unknown photographer, n.d.


Portrait of Richard Serra & ‘Tilted Arc’

Oliver Morris, 1981


Self-Portrait with a Hat

Paul Cézanne, c.1890-1894

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