Cézanne and Sensibility

“Women models frighten me”
– Paul Cézanne

Oh Paul don’t be scared! We won’t bite. Well, maybe a little 😆 During a recent visit to the Met with my friend Fred, the topic came up about the lack of posed nudes in the work of Cézanne, the greatly admired “father of modern art”. For me, as a blogging artist’s model, Paul Cézanne has always been a conundrum. His catalog of paintings, while significant and groundbreaking, isn’t exactly a treasure trove of nudes for me to choose from for post discussions. Yes, nudes do appear in Cézanne’s work – abstracted nudes in which the forms are simplified to serve a larger compositional scheme. But the explicit art “nude” as a primary subject was something Cézanne avoided like the plague. In all the art lectures I’ve been privy to, Cézanne is never cited as an exemplar of nude figure painting. The sentiment expressed in the above quote, which was corroborated by his good friend Emile Zola, offers some explanation, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sugar Bowl, Pears, and Blue Cup, 1866, by Paul Cézanne:

cezanne-sugar-bowl

An artist’s sensibility and attitudes are central to the work they create, and Cézanne was no exception. The son of a wealthy banker, Cézanne rejected a career in law to devote himself completely to art. An inveterate rural man, Paul Cézanne wore his country bumpkin hat with pride. He was only truly comfortable in the picturesque hills of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, the place where he was born and would die. Though he lived there for several years, Cézanne disliked Paris and preferred to spend as little time there as possible. When he did, he invited some derision from the fashionable Parisian sophisticates with his awkward social manners, southern dialect, and simple clothing. Mary Cassatt attended a dinner party where she observed Cézanne pulling the meat off his pork chop with his fingers. However, she also noted his respectful treatment of others which is rather interesting. “He shows a politeness towards us which no other man here would have shown.” she wrote.

Paul-Cezanne-9542036-1-402

So I Googled a few book excerpts on the subject of Cézanne and nudes, specifically his aversion to them, and I found some explanations which are not totally unreasonable. First, it seems that Cézanne was genuinely uncomfortable in the presence of nude women. His discomfort stemmed from either his own prudishness or his fear of being sexually tempted. Or most likely a mixture of both. Cézanne was a fairly conservative man, raised by a conservative father, living and working in a generally conservative, rural, provincial town. To that last point, Cézanne also expressed concern that even if he wanted to paint a female nude, he believed he’d have trouble obtaining one in the region. Aix is a lovely place for sure, but it isn’t Paris – a city where an artist could find a willing nude model within five minutes. The local townspeople of Aix might not have taken kindly to Cézanne employing a parade of nude models.

One of Cézanne’s favorite painting subjects, Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain overlooking Aix-En-Provence.

cezanne-mont-sainte-victoire

Besides his personal inhibitions and neurotic issues with women, Cézanne’s scarcity of nudes can also be explained in the context of his strong preference for working outdoors. While Cézanne painted many still lifes and portraits of his wife Marie-Hortense and other family members, he still held the belief that studio art could never be superior to art created outdoors, among the ever-changing lights, shadows, reflections, forms and colors of nature. Since a traditional “nude” is a studio work (for obvious reasons) it makes sense that the diehard outdoorsman wasn’t terribly interested.  Perhaps Cézanne had his fill of being cooped up in the studio painting apples and peaches. The beautiful landscape of Provence was a far more compelling enticement, and for an artist who was interested in exploring optical phenomena, nature provides the best material. In fact, Cézanne literally died from his devotion to outdoor painting. On October 15th, 1906 he endured two hours of a rainstorm working at his easel, until he finally succumbed, drenched and freezing. He collapsed on the road where a laundry cart driver found him. Cézanne died a week later from pneumonia and complications from diabetes.

So what about the nudes Cézanne DID paint? He was content to use his old sketches from art school and copies he made from museum visits as his references. With those, and perhaps a bit of “winging it”, an artist of Cézanne’s talents could achieve the nudes he required, without working from life. Anatomical precision and the individuality of the figure were not his main concern. The nudes, as shapes, are part of the landscape. This is his famous 1905 work, The Large Bathers:

Paul_Cézanne_Bathers

In writing this post I learned a lot about Cézanne, both the artist and the man. And even though he would choose to paint a bowl of grapes over me, I don’t take it personally 😉 Artists are expected to paint what inspires them the most and captures their imagination. No one is obligated to paint classical nudes of course. Actually, I respect Cézanne for being his own man; part beneficiary of a wealthy inheritance, part country yokel, not a lothario, not a publicity-seeker. He rejected the nightclubs, brothels, and cabarets of Paris, and the insufferable snobs of the art elite, and said instead, “Screw that shit. I’m gonna stay here in Aix and pave the way for modern art”.

22 thoughts on “Cézanne and Sensibility

  1. trombus says:

    Obviously, his problem with nudes, is that he didn’t get to paint you . . .

  2. Bill says:

    If he would have preferred to paint grapes rather than you, please bear in mind that he didn’t like Paris either. Probably didn’t like raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens . . . 🙂

  3. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting observations on Cezanne – and I certainly had no idea that his death was caused by his devotion to his art!

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      I didn’t know about his death either before I researched this post. It’s sad, but I bet that’s how Cézanne would have wanted to go.

      Thanks for commenting!
      Claudia

  4. fredh1 says:

    I think Cezanne was a real painter’s painter, and his approach inspired a lot of other artists who do appreciate models! It’s interesting to me that at the time Cezanne was working, the nude was so de rigeur for painters that he felt obliged to do nude paintings despite his aversion. And among the many ways artists have acted towards their models, fearing and avoiding them is hardly the worst! There are plenty of artists that acted like rock stars – sometimes I can appreciate a good ol’ country painter. And out of all the muses, Provence is a lovely one.

    Thanks for reminding me of our recent museum trip!

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Yes, I’ve often heard Cézanne referred to as a “painter’s painter”. And all his successors expressed great admiration for him, Picasso and Matisse especially. He surely compensated for his lack of nudes with his incredible landscapes of the mountains and fields of Provence. His home and studio in Aix is a popular tourist attraction.

      Thanks for your comments, and for the discussion that inspired this post!

      Claudia

  5. Elaine says:

    I visited Cezanne’s studio when I was in Aix years ago. It was an
    inspiring experience. His easel, paints, palette were just as he had left them. You can feel the aura of his presence as you stood there. The objects he painted in his still- lifes were in full view. I can understand however why he wanted to paint outdoors. Mont St. Victoire dominated the landscape and could be seen from everywhere. The colors of the countryside were glorious. Cezanne landscapes were beautiful in composition and style. He really was the father of the modern age of art, an original. As an artist, my visit to his studio was unforgettable.

    • artmodel says:

      Mom,

      Your description of Cézanne’s atelier and the Provence region is lovely. Thank you so much for sharing it with my readers! You’ve been an admirer of Cézanne for as long as I can remember. And you always told me that he fully deserves the “father of modern art” label. I see it clearer now than ever.

      Your next trip to Provence, I’m coming with you! 🙂

      Claudia

  6. coondude says:

    What a wonderful post, artmoel!

  7. Grier Horner says:

    When I’m painting I don’t want a model – or anyone else – around. But I love taking photos of models. I have one coming over tomorrow.
    That still life by Cezanne is amazing. Great subject, handled well, Claudia.

    • artmodel says:

      Grier,

      Your comment reinforces the idea that each person has to create in their own way. And it’s very clear that your way works for you 🙂

      Glad you liked the blog post!

      Claudia

  8. JG says:

    I wouldn’t lay off Cezanne’s lack of nudes to his preference to be outside. I love naked women outside (or inside…anywhere, actually) and even in the midst of Manhattan, you can always find a venue for a woman to “disrobe” (and more!😉) if you know where to look. (Hey, I had a roommate in my early 20’s…you can get away with a lot in the city if you’re cool about it and bring no attention to yourself.)

    Hey, Banksy…are you paying attention? A street nude…drawn from life! Go for it!

    • artmodel says:

      JG,

      Ha! I think Bansky has done pretty well for himself without life nudes. It’s true that if you’re discreet enough, you can manage nude, or semi-nude, set-ups in some parts of the city. But Cézanne was in Aix-En-Provence, and the locals back then might have had a different attitude about public nudity than us New Yorkers 😉

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

    • I am an art model myself, and I would love to do a “plein air” session…of course, it will be easier to get away with it here in Albuquerque than in Manhattan…or perhaps not, given the famous New York blasé attitude

      • artmodel says:

        Michael,

        New York is an odd place in this regard. The regular people are, by and large, blasé like you said. But the city government with its ordinances and permits, etc, present obstacles to a lot of public activity. Whenever I’ve posed outdoors I’ve been clothed.

        Thanks for commenting!

        Claudia

  9. Bruce says:

    Claudia,

    I very much enjoyed this post. Cezanne’s awkward and strange nudes have always been a mystery to me. You offer a good explanation as to why. The paintings you chose to illustrate your narrative are perfect. Personally I enjoy the freedom and exhilaration of painting outdoors but sometimes I just want to cocoon up with a canvas and a model.

    Let me also compliment you on keeping the quality of your blog at such a high level for so long. Your best entries are distilled art lectures. Your points of interests are in tune with those of a painter. There is an honesty and energy in your writing that can’t be faked. I’m certain you bring the same spirit to your modeling.

    Bruce Day

    • artmodel says:

      Bruce,

      I’m so gratified by what you wrote about my blog posts. Thank you! I’ve always strived to achieve a consistently quality blog, even it means staying up to all hours to get the topics, discussion, and images just right. It means a great deal that you have recognized it.

      As for Cézanne, his nudes are “awkward and strange” indeed, like the man himself in many ways. If I were a painter, as much as I would want to paint studio nudes, I think I’d also find the outdoors hard to resist!

      Thanks again for your comments. Much appreciated 🙂

      Claudia

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