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Art & artists

Cézanne: ‘Comprehending the world as he saw it’

— September 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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 Paul Cézanne, Roses in a Vase, pencil and watercolour, c. 1885, Courtesy, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C

Cézanne was admired by contemporaries such as Monet and Renoir, and influenced later generations of artists, including Matisse. His watercolours and drawings are just as important as his paintings

Paul Cézanne: Drawings and Waterolours by Christopher Lloyd

During his career as an artist, spanning over 40 years, Cézanne created more than 1,500 drawings and 600 watercolours. They are a significant part of his oeuvre – alongside just under 1000 paintings. Christopher Lloyd’s latest book, Paul Cézanne: Drawings and Watercolours gives insight into his method of working and the character of his art. Its underlying purpose is to encourage people to look more closely at Cézanne’s works on paper.

Paul Cézanne was greatly admired by his friends and contemporaries, including Pissarro, his art mentor, Renoir   and Monet. The list of artists he influenced is breath-taking involving early Cubist  pioneers Braque and Picasso,   and Matisse,   Léger, Kandinsky,   Robert Delaunay,  and Giacometti.  One could create a list expanding to the present day. Cézanne’s art has had a profound effect on artists and the art world; what can one add to the legions of books, papers, catalogues, and exhibitions on him? In this book the author chooses to take you inside Cézanne’s world, in a close study full of insightful anecdotes taken from historic events and excellent research sources to aid our perception of the artist through his own eyes and that of his family, his friends, colleagues and art dealers. Drawings, watercolours and paintings fill the pages to highlight keys points in the text.

Born in Aix-en-Provence, and very proud of his regional accent and countrified way of life, ‘to the point of exaggeration in dress, speech and manners’, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), first studied law. It was his banker father’s ambition for him to be a lawyer, or a banker. He failed his law exams while studying art locally from 1857 at the École Spéciale et Gratuite de Dessin de la ville d’Aix in Provence. Turned down for a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he enrolled at Académie Suisse briefly in 1861, returning again in 1862, where he met Pissarro and Monet amongst others.

Largely self-taught as an artist, Cézanne registered as a copyist at the Louvre, to learn from ‘past masters’. It was to aid his own understanding of art, copying works by Peter Paul Rubens,   Fra Bartolommeo, Poussin,   Raphael    and many others, including his favourite, Delacroix, all in Cézanne’s unique style.  He created around 400 copies, not only during his early years but even during the 1880s and 1890s when he was an established artist. (Some of the copies are included in the book.)

This close observation of other artists’ works is evident in his portraiture sittings. Christopher Lloyd relates how Cézanne would interrupt painting a sitter’s portrait to visit the Louvre, to find out from works on display how to continue the work when stuck on a complex part. The unfinished portrait (1899), of his art dealer and friend Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939), took 115 sittings (interspersed with Louvre visits). Vollard recalled the sittings, usually of three hours in length, which were conducted he said in absolute silence, as ‘slow and occasionally painful’. 

The 1880s and 1890s are considered to be Cézanne’s mature period as an artist, creating a great number of outstanding portraits, still life, a bathers’ series and landscapes, although, as Christopher Lloyd points out, Cézanne wrote to his childhood friend Émile Zola, on 24 September 1879, ‘I’m still trying to find my way, pictorially. Nature presents me with the greatest problems’. Cézanne was his own harshest critic. He was 56 years old at the time of his first solo exhibition, held at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris in November–December 1895. 150 paintings and watercolours were exhibited. Cézanne’s friends, Degas,   Monet,  Renoir, and Pissarro, all bought works. The show confirmed his place in contemporary art, his work a desirable commodity for collectors. Prices for his art escalated after a quick succession of further shows in 1898, 1899, 1901, and 1902, with a special show of 33 works at Salon d’Automne in 1904.

Christopher Lloyd considers that drawing was ‘central to the art of Cézanne and many of his watercolours are equal to his painting’. Cézanne made no distinction between painting and drawing. Thus ‘drawing, therefore, was not an end in itself for Cézanne but an analytical exercise for the purpose of comprehending the world as he saw it’. This book, a pleasure to read, leaves you feeling you know so much about Cézanne, the boy, the man, the artist, and where he painted, who he painted, why he painted, all revealed through his drawings and watercolours.

Paul Cézanne: Drawings and Waterolours   by Christopher Lloyd is published by Thames and Hudson, London, 2015. 320pp., 226 colour and b/w illus, £24.95. ISBN: 978 0 500 093870


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

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