Touring Cezanne's Cultural Roots

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Still Life with Apples i

In paintings like Still Life with Apples, Cezanne's fruit don't look edible but still seem to capture "the quintessence of appleness." J. Paul Getty Trust hide caption

itoggle caption J. Paul Getty Trust
Still Life with Apples

In paintings like Still Life with Apples, Cezanne's fruit don't look edible but still seem to capture "the quintessence of appleness."

J. Paul Getty Trust
Susan Stamberg talks with Cezanne look-alike i

Susan Stamberg meets a Cezanne look-alike in the local market. A cheese-seller by trade, he sometimes plays Cezanne in films and festivals. hide caption

itoggle caption
Susan Stamberg talks with Cezanne look-alike

Susan Stamberg meets a Cezanne look-alike in the local market. A cheese-seller by trade, he sometimes plays Cezanne in films and festivals.

A bucolic escape from busier ports of call, Aix-en-Provence in the south of France is known for olive oil, lavender, garlicky foods... and the master painter Paul Cezanne. Cezanne's death 100 years ago will be observed this year with art exhibitions in Washington, D.C., and Provence.

Cezanne had a complicated personality. He was considered a "lunatic" by fellow townspeople and was known as a loner. He hated his family, calling them "the nastiest people in the world." They were unsupportive of his artistic career.

In Paris, Cezanne found a small circle that understood him: the Impressionists. But his hometown gallery — the Aix Museum— banned his works for years because it was considered too radical.

Cezanne is renowned for his still lifes of fruit, often painted fresh from a local farmer's market. He arranged them carefully, put coins underneath some fruit to vary their height, and painted their structure and patterns.

Phillip Conisbee, Senior Curator at Washington's National Gallery, said Cezanne's early still lifes were stolid and dull until Pisarro taught him to loosen his brushstrokes in the Impressionist style. "You couldn't imagine biting into one of his apples, yet at the same time they seem to have the quintessence of appleness," said Conisbee.

Four years before he died, Cezanne built a studio on the edge of Aix. It has high ceilings, a window to let in Northern light, and still holds his two easels, paintboxes and palattes. It was in this studio that Cezanne painted his last and most memorable works. Bathers, a common theme in Cezanne's paintings, influenced the way Matisse — Cezanne's junior by 30 years — painted. Picasso, born 42 years after Cezanne, was also influenced by Cezanne's naked bathing ladies. He eventually created his own Cubist work of nudes — angled and outrageous — but called Cezanne "the father of us all."

The nearby limestone mountain, Mt. Sainte-Victorie, obsessed Cezanne throughout his career and is visible from his studio window. According to Michelle Fressay, director of the Cezanne studio, the artist tried in 80 canvases to capture the mountain, but was never quite satisfied. In 1906, Cezanne was painting near his beloved mountain when a thunderstorm soaked him and he had to be carried home in a laundry cart, unconscious. Diabetic and frail, he died just a few days later at age 67.

Grandson Philippe Cezanne will represent the family's interests during the "Year of Cezanne" in Provence. The area is expecting many visitors, and the town of Aix, which had little use for the artist during his lifetime, hopes for a Cezanne bonanza in this centenary of his death. "I think he would laugh about all that," his grandson says.

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