“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:
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.
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.
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:
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”.