Paul Cézanne (1836-1906) was a Post-Impressionist painter who is most well-known for his landscapes of Aix-en-Provence and Estaque, still life paintings, and depictions of peasants smoking pipes and playing cards. He did exhibit his paintings with the Impressionists, but eventually felt that their artwork had a lack of structure – he declared that he wanted to “make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of museums”.
For most of his career, the public and critics were unenthusiastic towards Cézanne’s artwork; however, they began to appreciate it in the 1890s. Around the same time, Cézanne was discovered and admired by the Parisian avant-garde artists, and his work would go on to have great influence in Cubism and Fauvism.
Here’s our list of ten of the best paintings by this French icon.
The Basket of Apples (c.1893)
The Basket of Apples is one of Cézanne’s most famous still life paintings. With the piece, Cézanne didn’t seek to imitate reality on the canvas. Instead, he depicts a titled table, a basket of apples leaning forward yet still resting on its base, and a bottle that appears close to toppling over, yet stays upright. Similarly, the loose apples on the left look as if they should roll off the table, but still rest upon it. The painting therefore represents multiple viewpoints instead of one single unifying perspective, a technique later embraced by Cubism.
Red Dress Series (c.1888-90)
During his lifetime, Paul Cézanne painted 29 known portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet. They met in 1869 in Paris, when Cézanne was studying painting and Hortense was a bookbinder, who modelled part-time to earn an extra income. Fiquet is a very recognisable subject with her pale, oval-shaped face, slicked back hair, severe middle parting and mask-like features. This particular series is made up of four portraits of Fiquet in a shawl-collared red dress, against a blue-grey background that art historians have identified as a wall in the apartment that Cézanne rented at 15 quai d’Anjou, Paris, between 1888 and 1890.
The Murder (c.1867-70)
This painting is one of the most famous paintings of Cézanne’s “dark period”, which ran through the 1860s. The Murder depicts three figures: the murderer, one arm raised to deliver the fatal blow and the other holding the victim down; his female accomplice, pinning down the victim; and the victim herself, in helpless agony on the ground.
This brutal attack seems to be taking place on a riverbank, with the water behind the figures. However, Cézanne has made it very difficult to discern where the land, water and sky begin and end. Similarly, we cannot see the faces of the attackers. With this nonspecific landscape and unidentified murderers, all Cézanne allows us to know is that a murder is taking place. The painting thus becomes a chilling depiction of faceless human brutality.
Pyramid of Skulls (c.1901)
This artwork is one of numerous still life paintings depicting skulls that Cézanne completed between the mid-1890s and his death in 1906. During the final decade of his death, Cézanne seemingly became preoccupied with death and morality, and often wrote on the subjects in his letters. At this time, Cézanne was working in isolation, began to experience declining health and was mourning the loss of his mother, who died in 1897.
It is also possible that Cézanne focused on skulls as a subject in his paintings as preserved skulls were often displayed in Catholic households as a memento mori (a reminder of the inevitably of death), and Cézanne himself was a devout Catholic. Indeed, Christian and Western artwork had frequently depicted skulls as a memento mori, such as in Guercino’s The Arcadian Shepherds.
The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque (c.1885)
Estaque is a village in the south of France, near Marseilles, that Cézanne was acquainted with since childhood and was particularly fond of. He would spend time there with his mother in the summertime, and later stayed there during the Franco-Prussian War with Hortense Fiquet to avoid conscription. This led to Cézanne being declared a draft dodger in January 1871.
Cézanne completed many other artworks depicting the Estaque landscape in his lifetime, other noteworthy examples including L’Estaque with Red Roofs (1885) and L’Estaque, Melting Snow (1871). Shortly after his death the Cubist artist Georges Braque, who had been greatly inspired by Cézanne, completed a series of paintings at Estaque. Notably, Braque was influenced by Cézanne’s use of geometric shapes and warped perspectives
The Boy in the Red Vest (1889 or 90)
Cézanne painted four oil portraits of this boy, of which the most famous (shown above) is held in the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zürich, and depicts him cradling his head in his hand. In 2008, this portrait was stolen alongside paintings by Dégas, Monet and van Gough from the Foundation in one of the biggest art thefts in Europe. It was later recovered in Serbia in 2012. (The Degas was recovered a couple of weeks later as well, whilst the Monet and Degas had been found shortly after the robbery itself.)
The subject of the portraits is an Italian boy named Michelangelo di Rosa, who is wearing traditional Italian dress. This painting is noted for its mix of classical and impressionist styles, and its use of multiple viewpoints. Gustave Geffroy, an art critic, stated in 1895 that this painting compared with the finest figure paintings of the Old Masters.
The Hanged Man’s House (1873)
This painting is probably the most famous of Paul Cézanne’s Impressionist period, which took place between the early and late 1870s. In 1872, Cézanne moved with his wife and son to Auvers-sur-Oise. Here, and at the nearby town of Pontoise, Cézanne was taught the methods and theories of Impressionism by the artist Camille Pissarro.
Although Cézanne’s work differed from the Impressionists in several respects, in The House of the Hanged Man (like others from this period) Cézanne has used the pale, lighter colours and short brushstrokes of the Impressionists.
This particular painting depicts the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, and was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Despite a negative reception from establishment critics, it was the first of Cézanne’s paintings to be sold to a collector.
The Card Players (1890-1895)
The Card Players is not one painting, but rather a series of five that all depict Pronvençal peasants playing cards and smoking pipes. For these compositions, Cézanne used farmhands who worked on the Cézanne family estate in Jas de Bouffan as models, making studies of them on their own and then bringing them together in the completed paintings.
He found these workers compelling, and was particularly fascinated by their small traditions, later stating that “I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs”. His admiration for the peasants perhaps explains why he has broken from rural genre painting tradition in his depiction of them. Rather than portray the peasants as unruly, drunkards, and gamblers – as they had been shown in artwork for centuries – Cézanne has instead shown the peasants concentrating on their games in quiet dignity without any money
In 2011, one of five paintings (shown above) was sold to the Royal Family of Qatar for a record-breaking sum of over $250 million.
The Large Bathers (1898-05)
In his lifetime, Paul Cézanne painted around 200 artworks featuring male and female nude bathers in a landscape, the earliest of which dates back to the 1870s. The Large Bathers belongs to a series of three paintings that depict a group of female bathers.
The painting shown above, which is the most acclaimed in the series, is held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The other two canvases are housed in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the National Gallery in London. The Philadelphia painting remained unfinished at his death, which is indicated by the areas of canvas still showing through and the uncompleted bather in the bottom right corner.
Mont Saint-Victoire Series (1880s-1906)
Mont Saint-Victoire is a mountain that overlooks Cézanne’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence, and much like Estaque, has come to be associated with the painter because of his many paintings depicting it. Cézanne had painted the mountain alongside other subjects in some of his paintings since the 1870s, such as Bathers at Rest, yet it was only in the mid-1880s that the mountain became the dominant subject in his paintings of Provençal landscapes.
In these paintings, Cézanne sometimes included the nearby railway bridge on the Aix-Marseille line, such as in Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85, shown above). In this series, Cézanne’s simplification of nature into simple geometric shapes is often described as an anticipation of Cubism.