Interpretive Resource

Examination: Cezanne's Career and Depiction of Nature

An exploration of Cezanne's seascape and his geometry of nature's forms.

Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 56-57.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) Maligned as a minor painter during his two Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1877 but today hailed as one of the fathers of modem art, Cezanne only developed his mature style after he withdrew in the 1880's to his family estate in Aix-en-Provence, near the Mediterranean coast. He spent the rest of his life there, painting in isolation and struggling, in his words, "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums." (He was a lifelong devotee of the Old Masters.) His quest was for a basic harmony of color and form, in which he captured the underlying structure and composition of nature. His creative process was a slow, difficult, and uncertain ordeal. It often took him years to complete a work, as exemplified in the dating of The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, 1886-90.

In a letter to his friend and mentor Pissarro, Cezanne compared the view of the sea from L’Estaqiie to a playing card. He was fascinated by the color and configuration of the buildings, with their red tile roofs and tall chimneys, bordering the bay and set against coastal mountains. L’Estaque was a small village about eighteen miles from Cezanne's home. The city of Marseilles is visible in the painting’s background, reduced to a few rectangular patches with a jetty jutting out into the bay. The artist divided the canvas into four sections: architecture, water, mountain, and sky. Although these four elements are seen again and again in Impressionist paintings, Cezanne's work is light years away from those of his early colleagues. Their purpose was to record the transient effects of weather and light; Cezanne sought to render the core geometry of nature’s forms. As he instructed a younger painter: "Treat nature" — which he saw as more "depth than surface —"through the cylinder, the sphere, the cone."

To do this, Cezanne fills the canvas with shapes defined by bold, contrasting colors and a complex grid of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. Like Seurat, he wanted to achieve permanence of form through his technique. But instead of Seurat’s tip of the brush to create shimmering dots and dashes, Cezanne uses the side of his brush, as if each stroke were a building block. The brush slides from one facet to another, building up the space with shapes that seem both two and thee-dimensional. Not locked tightly in place yet almost sculptural in their solidity, his forms seem continually to touch and shift, creating a sense of volume and space that strengthens the composition and brings it to life. So tangible are the artist’s shapes that we almost want to feel our way around the landscape. The resulting image, like a playing card, is a highly compact, dynamic pattern of water, sky, land, and village that at once refers back to traditionally structured landscape paintings and forward to the innovations of Cubism.

Bay of Marseilles is one of more than a dozen such vistas that Cezanne created during the 1880's, before he stopped working at l’Estaque. Like many other Post-Impressionist artists, Cezanne found the advances of technology polluting. "I remember perfectly well ... the once so picturesque banks of l’Estaque," he wrote in a letter to his goddaughter in 1902. "Unfortunately what we call progress is nothing but the invasion of bipeds who do not rest until they have transformed everything into hideous guais with gas lamps — and, what is still worse, with electric illumination. What times we live in!" The grandeur and resolution of the Art Institute’s painting suggests that it may have been his final view of this once-favored motif.

landscapes, water, weather/seasons


Elementary, High School, Middle School

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