#004 The mentality of Cézanne and Pissarro
Many artists had formed artistic bonds throughout the history of art: Van Gogh and Gauguin, Derain, and Matisse, and Braque and Picasso but they barely lasted a couple of years. Nothing comes closer to the intensity, affinity, and duration of Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro's friendship and artistic exchange.
Spanning 20 years from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, their relationship started at a time when the foundation of modern art was being laid out historically. They met at the Salon des Refusés of 1863 in Paris and saw each other as outsiders and shared the sense of being from another place, and for good reasons. Pissarro was born in the Caribbean, on a small island where little French was ever spoken and was brought up in a very unorthodox environment where authority (especially religious authority) was not only questioned but challenged. Then studied in Paris and returned to his family in the Caribbean to take over his father's business. Having no interest in doing that he escaped with a Danish friend to Venezuela where he stayed for the following two years and discovered his interest in painting. He briefly returned to the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean to inform his parents of his career decision and then moved to Paris in 1855, never to return to the New World.
Cézanne was a peculiar, kind of grumpy man from Provence, looked upon as a foreigner as it sounded like one with a thick Marseille accent. Besides sharing this sense of being outsiders of the Parisian art scene, they also shared the fact that both their mothers were of “Creole” origins.
According to the first historians who analyzed their relationship, Roger Fry and Alfred H. Barr Jr., it developed as a Mentor/disciple, where the older painter, Pissarro, would have cured the younger Provencal artist of his early artistic madness, his abnormal sensitivity, helping him to hone his talent by introducing him to landscape painting and set him on the road that allowed him to realize his own truth. This narrative depicts Pissarro as the pivotal person who pulls the veil and gradually reveals Cézanne to himself.
But after the studies of Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of Camille Pissarro, we got to know a more complex and reciprocal interchange in which both artists appeared to have a lot to gain and lose each day of their artistic interactions. This does not confine each artist to one role but instead, each learns from and teaches the other so that, in the end, neither can be seen as a “master” or a “disciple”. They both arrived by “infinitely patient trial and error at conclusions which have changed the direction of the history of art”1.
Cézanne and Pissarro decided to paint nature together and they retained and cultivated their mutual otherness toward each other. What fascinated them was the extraordinary difference that each of them embodied. They sought out an excess of vision in each other and learned from each other's excesses.
While studying their lives and artistic exchange three things impressed me the most:
- Their extreme dedication to their work.
- Their quest for personal expression and incessant exploration of new ways to achieve it.
- Their modern artistic and philosophical belief reoriented the value system of the art world.
Let's delve into each of them.
- Their extreme dedication to their work:
Although they saw each other as equals, Pissarro greatly improved Cézanne's approach to work. Cézanne always worked but Pissarro turned him into a workaholic. In their letters the term Pissarro uses is “travail archarné” (compulsive work) Pissarro's notion of work left no room for holidays, breaks, or moments of idleness. Work for him was a regulator of life and health. “Painting, art in general, enchants me: this is my life. The rest doesn't matter”2. He wishes he could be a monk to fully dedicate himself exclusively to his work, so he wrote: “I have to withdraw into myself just like the monks in the past, and then, quietly, patiently, I have to build up my oeuvre...I work a lot mentally, now I need to execute”3. This obsessive need to work and return to it over and over is also one of the defining characteristics of Cézanne, which he learned from Pissarro. In fact, Cézanne credited Pissarro for introducing him to the taste of serious work and wrote: “Until the age of forty I lived as a Bohemian: I wasted my life. It is only later when I got to know Pissarro, who was indefatigable, that I developed a taste for work.”4
“I began to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted towards the age of forty, but only vaguely. When I was fifty-that is in 1880- I formulated the idea of unity but was unable to turn it into practice. Now that I am sixty years old, I am beginning to see the possibility of turning this into practice.”5 Both artists felt that coming of age artistically comes from hard work, which eventually delivers one's own “sensations”.
This is something expressed by Katsushika Hokusai too, which, famously shortly before his death at 88 years old, he said to his daughter: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter”.
What is absolutely revelatory, fascinating, and inspiring to me is their lifelong dedication to their chosen craft together with their desire to play the long game. I find this all very comforting because I like this mindset and I see myself in it. I am a huge admirer of such mentality and dedication and I always try to put it into practice.
Both Pissarro and Cézanne developed an understanding of work that far exceeds its usual definition. For them, work attained an ontological dimension in that it become a way to “realize” one's self. In other words, without one, one could not become oneself. It is easy to understand now why both places such critical emphasis on work per se.
In a conversation with Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne said:
“I must stay home, see nobody, work...it would be to reach satisfaction with myself.
But I cannot. I never will. I cannot be satisfied.”
Then, as he was continuing that line, in a letter to his mother in 1874 he also expressed another concept of his understanding of work: “I have to work always, but not to reach a finished painting (which the idiots cherish)”. Interestingly, Pissarro expressed the same thoughts in a letter to Claude Monet in 1890, where he described himself as overwhelmed with work and complained that despite all the energy he pours into his paintings, “We hear the reproach that we never finish anything”. Then, again, in 1906 shortly before his death Cézanne said to a friend: “I always work, and I don't let the review and the critics worry me: just what a true artist should do. Work will eventually prove me right”. Finally, in a letter to Emile Zola (the famous french writer whom he was a friend since childhood), he stated that it was only through work that one could reach true self-satisfaction.
- Their quest for personal expression and incessant exploration of new ways to achieve it:
Both artists rejected the theory that a work of art must be created according to certain conventions and formulas and believed that art should be judged by taking into account the artist's sensations and temperament. This idea of remaining faithful to one's self constitutes a defining thread of modern art. Cézanne's friend, Emile Zola, accomplished a huge leap when suggested that beauty does not reside in the outside world but inside ourselves: “It is in us that beauty exists and not outside us.”6
Emile Zola, Being a prominent writer at the time, played an important role in furthering the idea of personal expression shared by Cézanne and Pissarro. Zola, characteristically diligent in laying the groundwork for his research, spent hours discussing with his close friends (Cézanne, Pissarro, Jean-Baptistin Baille, Philippe Solari, Antoine Guillemet, and Francisco Oller) the stakes in this new form of aesthetics that was bringing a radical redefinition of beauty. He articulated a crucial language that reflected a consensual platform of agreement between all these artists.
For them, all “truth” and “sincerity” referred to a work of art that adequately reflected the character, feelings, and individuality of an artist. This is a critical idea that Cézanne and Pissarro explore all their lives.
“What is important is to find an artist who reveals himself in his paintings.”7
Their shared notion of “truthful” in art was at the antipode of the photographic notion of truth, which they despised in painting. Being accurate and realistic didn't qualify as a truthful work of art but rather as a work lacking personality, expressivity, and life. A truthful work of art had to provide a forceful expression of an individual.
During the time they worked together, both were profoundly attached to the principle of a division between art and mere skills. This division would become the essence of any definition of modernism.
Zola went on to say that a proper definition of the modern artist must respect his independence. Furthermore, he declared that the real artist can not abide by the constraining laws of any canon that would be contrary to the essential freedom that is inherent in any human enterprise. Zola thus concludes: “It is understood that the artist places himself in front of nature; he copies it while interpreting it; he is more or less realist according to his eyes; in a word, his mandate is to render objects as he sees them, stressing such and such detail and creating anew.”8
Zola's logic is flawless and constitutes the core of Pissarro and Cézanne's art production.
But two factors could be a threat to such freedom of expression: the influence of a master (dictating to him the way he should paint) and the impact of a school system (the passing on to students the codes and conventions of a pre-established tradition).
Pissarro and Cézanne, along with their broader circle of impressionists, were very aware of the insidious impact of “masters” who could corrupt their in-depth search for their artistic selves. The irony, of course, is that by the end of their lives, they became masters themselves, but they became modern masters, meaning that they kept at heart the paradox of modernity: How is it possible to learn while retaining one's freedom?
Pissarro explained it in this way: “You cannot set principles, because each personality experiences different sensations. One goes to all those schools to study art. Well, that's a big illusion. One learns a craft, but art? Never!”9
In a letter to Bernard, Cézanne delineates a step-by-step prescription for their common artistic goal:
1. Go to the Louvre (where one learns the vocabulary of painting);
2. Be careful, however, to stay away from the Louvre's lessons, the mechanism of traditional technique, and learned formulas. After the Louvre, one must exit the museum and the tradition it encompasses and go to study nature;
3. In this process one obtains two benefits: One extracts “the essence” of nature at the same time as one manages gradually “to express oneself” according to personal temperament;
4. After time and reflection, our vision becomes transformed and finally one understands it: “Comprehension comes to us”. Our self is finally revealed through this time-consuming, painstaking research before nature. This is the point of realization (a term much liked by Cézanne) of his new, modern aesthetic and artistic program.
“Don't bother trying to look for something new: you won't find novelty in the subject matter,
but in the way you express it.”10
All these strong beliefs had a real lasting impact on how they practiced their art, which was a total departure from classical paintings. They didn't care about drawing skills, they used to paint directly on the canvas. Through a series of “patch” (tache in French) and “touch” (touche in French) opposed to each other. Juxtaposing planes of color with little or no modeling at all and without the use of drawing. Their artworks were the result of patches and touches of paint one after another, creating a harmonic collage, which reflected their personal interpretation of the scene in front of them. They called this “painting in reverse” and both saw great potential in it. The difference between the two artists is that Cézanne brought the viewer more openly into the process of building up his surfaces. By looking at a Cézanne painting, it is possible to see, with little effort, how he worked. Pissarro, while following the same premise, was more concerned with reaching an effect of smooth unity than Cézanne was. A common goal was to keep searching for new modes of painting and exploring ways in which they could give a pictorial equivalent of their inner sensations. They found in each other a kindred spirit, a sort of another self. Someone who would not only understand what they produced but would, in fact, support, encourage and legitimize each other in their individual pursuit. All the while trying to reach their ultimate goal: Harmony.
“Art is a harmony parallel to nature” is perhaps Cézanne's most famous statement. Cézanne, in answer to the question: “What is your favorite color?” declares: “Overall harmony”.
- Their modern artistic and philosophical belief reoriented the value system of the art world:
In 1866 Cézanne got two paintings rejected from the Paris salon, which was the art exhibition, organized by the French Academy of Fine Arts, and wrote two letters to the Minister of Fine Art. Only the second letter survived. In it Cézanne does not beg the minister to overrule the decision of the jury, instead, he simply declares that the decision of the jury is null and void, given the fact that he-Cézanne-had not conferred upon the jury the “mandate” to judge his work. He does not speak about reforms, but calls for a revolution, demanding that the members of the jury be replaced by the public at large. Cézanne knew this was naïve and meaningless. The letter sounds more like a Manifesto as he speaks for all the painters in the same situation. The letter was never answered but a clerk annotated that “What he is asking is impossible”.
Eight years later, in 1874, the situation has evolved considerably and the group of artists whose voice Cézanne represented had now given themselves the means and platform to exhibit their works publicly, without any approval from any jury. This group of artists was soon to be called “the impressionists”. The Paris Salon continued to exist until the twentieth century but they had lost their supremacy and Cézanne's once “impossible” requests were becoming reality.
Nonetheless, Cézanne quickly realized two problems with his own demands. The annihilation of the jury system gave the right to judge their work to “the public” (as the impressionists did), which confronted them with different problems. The public could not turn down their work but there could voice their dismay, shock, and incomprehension. But for Cézanne negative or critical reaction is better than no reaction at all, and this is the point he was trying to make through his 1866 letter to the Minister of Fine Arts.
The second issue was also the first major question in the dynamics of modern art: What criteria of quality would be used to select these artists?
Obviously sensitive to this question, had first written in his letter that the exhibition should be “open to everybody”, then he changed his mind and wrote, “open to every serious worker”. So the criteria was the degree of an artist's commitment to his work rather than the quality of the works submitted. As both artists felt that coming of age artistically comes from hard work, which eventually delivers one's own “sensibilities”, it made perfect sense for them to use such criteria.
In the mid and late 1880s, Pissarro and Cézanne chose radically different pictorial solutions to further the point they had reached in their art. This is probably what caused the end of their relationship. Pissarro started painting in what was then known as Pointillism: breaking down colors into a myriad of fractured strokes of paint which, combined according to certain rules, would yield a greater sense of reality when seeing them all together on canvas. This was the direction in which Seurat and Paul Signac were headed, and Pissarro adopted it shortly after his last contact with Cézanne in the mid-1880s. Cézanne, instead, decided to give colors a freer status than ever, allowing them to dictate their own logic or system on the canvas. Art, then, became a system of harmonies parallel to the artist's sensations and to nature.
1. Letter from Guillemet, at M.Dagorne's in Guildo-en-Crehen, to Pissarro. Archives Pissarro n.79
2. Gachet. Cézanne a Auvers, Cézanne graveur.
3. Letter from Monet, from Argenteuil, to Pissarro. Archives Pissarro n.98
4. The etching is LM 4;Ibid
5. Letter from Lettres impressionnistes
6. Letter from Zola to Valabregue
7. Letter from Zola to Cézanne dated July 4, 1871
8. Zola Ecrits
9. Pissarro Correspondances
10. Letter from Lettres impressionnistes
January 23rd, 2022.