Touring Cezanne's Cultural Roots Master painter Paul Cezanne grew up in Aix-en-Provence in South France. He died 100 years ago, and Susan Stamberg went to his hometown to learn about the mercurial artist's local life and inspirations.
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Touring Cezanne's Cultural Roots

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Touring Cezanne's Cultural Roots

Touring Cezanne's Cultural Roots

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The region of Provence in the south of France is known for olive oil, lavender, garlicky foods and its master painter, Paul Cezanne. His death 100 years ago will be observed with art exhibits in Washington and his home town, where a year of Cezanne will be celebrated. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited the place where Cezanne grew up.


Three PM in Aix-En-Provence. Kids pour out of Paul Cezanne's old high school.

(Soundbite of high school students talking)

STAMBERG: Kids like this jeered at the older Cezanne, trudging through town with his gray beard, paint-stained clothes. They threw stones at him.

Mr. JEAN IBURRA(ph) (Aix Tourist Office): Yeah, he was really rejected.

(Soundbite of crowd and glass clinking)

STAMBERG: Jean Iburra of the tourist Office in Aix. It's spelled A-I-X.

Mr. IBURRA: The inhabitants considered him as a kind of lunatic, someone who's difficult to understand.

STAMBERG: Cezanne was a loner, had fits of anger, slashed his canvases, hated his family. The nastiest people in the world, he called them. They didn't want Paul to be an artist, but my guide, Carolyn Bernard, says that didn't stop the boy.

So, Carolyn, would Cezanne have walked along this street from high school?

Ms. CAROLYN BERNARD (Guide): Yes. To go to the museum (French spoken) here, because it was the school of drawing.

STAMBERG: So he walked this way to go to his art class?

Ms. BERNARD: Yes, exactly.

STAMBERG: The strong light of Provence guilds the museum where young Paul copied formal, careful, master drawings. Once Cezanne developed his own style, the director of the Aix Museum banned his paintings.

Unidentified Woman: Ali Pontuex(ph) said, `Until I'm alive, no Cezanne works will hang in my museum.' Aix was very conservative and Cezanne was too modern.

Mr. PHILIP CONISBEE (Senior Curator, National Gallery): Cezanne's art was considered to be, indeed was, extremely radical at the time.

STAMBERG: Philip Conisbee is senior curator at Washington's National Gallery.

Mr. CONISBEE: He was understood by a small circle in Paris. The impressionist Gaughan collected his work. But here in this sleepy, provincial town, he was seen as pretty wild.

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

STAMBERG: The farmers market in Aix supplied the fruits Cezanne painted. He arranged them carefully. He put coins underneath, so this pear was a fraction higher than that one. This orange leaned just so near that apple. Cezanne built patterns of fruit to paint their architecture, their structure.

Mr. CONISBEE: Yes, you couldn't really imagine biting into one of his apples. That's absolutely true. Yet at the same time, they seemed to have the quintessence of appleness.

STAMBERG: Philip Conisbee says the early still-lifes were stolid and dull. Then, Cezanne learned to loosen his brush stroke and flirted around the canvas like the impressionists. But Cezanne went beyond impressionism.

Mr. CONISBEE: He once said that he wanted to make of impressionism something solid and lasting, like the art of the museums.

STAMBERG: Impressionism gave us the moment; Cezanne gave us the eternity.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

STAMBERG: Four years before he died, Cezanne built a studio on the edge of Aix: high ceilings, a window wall for northern light, two easels, his paint boxes, palettes.

Mr. CONISBEE: Isn't this a wonderful place?

STAMBERG: Oh, it--you've entered his world here.

Mr. CONISBEE: Yeah. No, you still feel his presence here. It's really extraordinary.


Mr. CONISBEE: Those are even some fragments, paintings that you can just see the...

STAMBERG: But also things he painted.

Mr. CONISBEE: Things he painted.

STAMBERG: There are some jugs, some tables...

Mr. CONISBEE: ...(Unintelligible)

STAMBERG: ...a little cherub there.

On pegs along one wall his bowler hat, a smock, his black coat. In this studio, Cezanne painted his last, most memorable works: Bathers, a theme for decades; nude young men and, as my guide, Caroline Bernard, puts it...

Ms. BERNARD: ...the naked bathing ladies.

STAMBERG: Just as you wouldn't want to eat Cezanne's apples, you don't want to touch his naked bathing ladies or men. They are too monumental. Matisse, 30 years Cezanne's junior, saw those bathers and changed his own way of painting. Picasso, 42 years younger, saw them and created the first cubist work: naked ladies, not bathing, but angled and outrageous. Picasso called Cezanne, `the father of us all.'

(Soundbite of footsteps)

STAMBERG: Not far from Cezanne's studio, visible from his window, the noble limestone mountain that obsessed the artist on some 80 canvases.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

STAMBERG: I'm walking up at the very bottom of Mt. Saint-Victoire on a perfect sunny day, and that mountain is looming in front of me. Chalk white where the sun hits it; gray where there are clouds. When he was a young boy, Cezanne and his friends used to climb this mountain. But when he became a man he didn't climb it anymore. He painted it over and over and over again.

Cezanne was painting near his beloved Mt. Saint-Victoire when a thunderstorm soaked him. Sixty-seven years old, diabetic and frail, he was found unconscious and carried home in the back of a laundry cart. A few days later, he died.

(Soundbite of group activity)

STAMBERG: Today in Aix, a bearded fellow with long, gray hair and a strong resemblance to the artist portrays Cezanne in festivals and films.

Vous etes Monsieur Cezanne now?

Unidentified Man (Cezanne Impersonator): (French spoken)

STAMBERG: He had to learn how to paint for the role, but he's not a painter. He sells cheese, goat cheese, in the market. But there's a real Monsieur Cezanne in Aix, too.

Mr. PHILIP CEZANNE: My name is Philip Cezanne and I am the great-grandson of the artist.

STAMBERG: Everything his great-grandfather was not--charming, sociable, handsome, Philip Cezanne will represent the family's interests during this 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.

What do you think he would make of all of this celebration now?

Mr. CEZANNE: Well, I think he would laugh about all that, because I think he would thought it was too much.

STAMBERG: Laugh, says Philip Cezanne, and be quite pleased. His great-grandfather was a complicated man, Philip says--shy, gruff, proud, like a lot of us.

The art Paul Cezanne created in Provence goes on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington starting January 29th. It returns to Aix-En-Provence in June. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: To see some of Cezanne's art work, go to

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Co-host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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