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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Picasso once said that Paul Cezanne, the great 19th-century French painter, was the father of us all. Cezanne's brush strokes, the way he distorted perspective, his subjects - all influenced the cubists and many artists who came after him. A group of Cezanne's still life paintings are on view right now at the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia. NPR special correspondent, Susan Stamberg, went to take a look.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The night before the show opened, the Barnes had fancy dinner for lenders - people who actually live with Cezannes every day. That one's mine, said one well-groomed lender, pointing - I keep it at the foot of the stairs. My neighbor Barbara Baldwin went to the Barnes a few months ago - that incredible collection of pretty much every painting you've ever seen reproduced in art books, that's not in the Met or the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. She was wowed by the Renoirs, the largest Renoir collection in the world. All those naked women, Barbara said - good heavens. The current special exhibition is all about naked fruit - apples mostly. The show is called, "The World is an Apple - The Still Lifes of Paul Cezanne."

JOE RISHEL: Repetitive apples and apples - how many apples do you need in a lifetime?

STAMBERG: But not the way Cezanne paints them, says Joe Rishel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Cezanne...

RISHEL: ...Every game is a new game.

STAMBERG: New, because of how he painted them, and how he arranged them before he painted them.

RISHEL: He would stick little wedges of any kind - sometimes fat little coins beneath them just to prop them up. And they're cute.

STAMBERG: Cute? Ingenious. He propped one apple higher than others, put another at an angle, pushed another into the foreground - then he painted. Cezanne - playing with perspective. I want to a astonish Paris with an apple - he has said to have said. And coming to town from his southern country village of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne certainly did.

BENEDICT LECA: They thought he was crazy.

STAMBERG: Benedict Leca is curator of this show.

LECA: People said he was on drugs, even. People said that he was dabbling in hashish, and he was out of his mind.

STAMBERG: Judith Dolkart, chief curator at the Barnes, said Paris had never seen brushwork like this.

JUDITH DOLKART: These are these very short, parallel strokes - very clearly painted. He does nothing to do to hide his hand.

STAMBERG: The paint to thick - it's almost chiseled onto the canvas. You can see the edges of each hatched stroke. And subtly, within each page stroke, the colors change. One has more white in it, the one next to it is darker.

DOLKART: Every time he is lifting his brush he's declaring, I'm a painter. This is my medium, these are my materials.

LECA: What we lose today, is the shock value of these paintings.

STAMBERG: Again, curator Benedict Leca. He is Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, in Ontario, Canada.

LECA: They were shocking at the time. To a French viewer in the late 19th century, when apple painted with these distinct strokes in this kind of rough-hewn manner, would have been shocking.

STAMBERG: In those days, painters made their strokes smooth, and invisible as possible. Not Cezanne, which may be one of the reasons Leca says for this shocking little dab of Cezanne information.

LECA: There's never been a show entirely devoted to his still life paintings.

STAMBERG: In the U.S. anyway. And given Cezanne's fame, and how many still lifes he painted, it really doesn't make sense. How come, how is that possible?

LECA: There is a historic bias against still life painting. It was always the lowest genre in the hierarchy of painting, as established by the French Academy in 1648.

STAMBERG: Seems still lifes, they say lifes, by the way - not lives, were the bottom feeders of the art world. Most prized were historical subjects - Bible scenes, mythic figures. After that, portraits. Landscapes were okay, although landscape painters were sometimes seen as slackers, not working all that hard. But apples? A parade of fruit? No. Paul Cezanne took on the establishment. Ambitious, fierce? He was determined to astonish Paris, not just with apples but by making his mark on canvas and in life.

LECA: ...Walks around in a blue smock in Paris. He meets Monet on the street and says, sorry I don't want to shake your hand, I haven't bathed in three days.

STAMBERG: The raw country a fellow thumbing his paint stains at Parisian elegance. But, Cezanne was no bumpkin.

LECA: You know, you're talking about a guy who went to The Louvre, who copied the Old Masters, who was keenly aware of his historical position. He felt that he was gonna go in the history books, so we wanted to make sure to be distinctive.

STAMBERG: Well, took a while, but it worked. Today Cezanne is in the pantheon of all-time great artists. Evidence is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Masterworks, in their permanent collection. And until the end of September, a special still life exhibit - that astonishment of apples, and some pears - and oranges. And I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see some of Cezanne's work at npr.org.

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