Astonishing with Apples, Paul Cézanne


In April 1902 Paul Cézanne wrote to his friend and art dealer, Ambroise Vollard.

I am not neglecting my work. It makes heavy demands upon me, but I like to believe that it will not be sterile. I have had a studio built upon a bit of land which I acquired for the purpose and I am pursuing my researches there. As soon as I am satisfied that they have borne fruit, I shall inform you of the results.

Paul Cézanne’s studio, with a little house and garden, is in the hilly suburb of La Lauves, on what is now called the Avenue Paul Cézanne, just outside the town of Aix-en-Provence. Nearby is a spot that affords a view of his favourite motif: Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Cézanne had mostly lived and worked for many years in his family home on Aix’s Avenue Jas de Bouffan. But after his mother’s death in 1899 the house was sold and he was able to realise a long-standing dream to build his own studio. Cézanne’s land had a magnificent view of the town, the belfry of the cathedral, and the mountain ranges on the horizon. The house has several small rooms but he seldom slept there as he had an apartment in town. The large studio is upstairs, with an enormous window facing the cool, clear northern light that is ideal for painters.

The Man

During his later years, when his wife and son Paul were living mostly in Marseilles, Cézanne had retreated from human contact, growing ever more uncouth and curmudgeonly: ‘The world doesn’t understand me and I don’t understand the world, that’s why I’ve withdrawn from it’, he said. On a rare visit to Giverny to join Monet at a gathering of some of the leading artists of the time he met Mary Cassatt who described her impressions in a letter to a friend:

Monsieur Cézanne is from Provence and is like the man from the Midi whom Daudet describes. When I first saw him, I thought he looked like a cutthroat with large red eyeballs standing out from his head in a most ferocious manner, a rather fierce-looking pointed beard, quite grey, and an excited way of talking that positively made the dishes rattle. I found out later that I had misjudged his appearance, for far from being fierce or a cutthroat, he has the gentlest nature possible…He prefaces every remark with: ‘Pour moi’ it is so and so, but he grants that everyone may be as honest and as true to nature from their own convictions; he doesn’t believe that everyone should see alike.

She noticed some of Cézanne’s contradictions. He uttered profanities and drank the dregs of his soup straight from the bowl, yet he recited tracts of Ovid and Virgil in Latin. He was scornful of priests, but faithfully attended Mass. Professing hatred of the Paris Salon, he had submitted canvases to its judges year after year, only to be rejected. While exalting traditions of art, he obsessed about overturning them. And he could consider himself a failure one minute, and the best in his time the next. ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’, he announced.

During the years while his friends Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Renoir were finally achieving acceptance, Cézanne worked alone, forging his own path, pursuing his unique visual language. He learned important lessons from the Impressionists, especially their use of small, separate strokes of the brush, and the observation of exact appearances, rather than imaginary scenes. But he broke with them early, finding their work too ephemeral. ‘I wanted to make out of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums’, he told Joachim Gasquet.

The Work

By the time he reached the age of fifty in the late 1880’s, the violent and sexually charged images of his youth, the paintings that he described as couillarde, or ‘ballsy’, were behind him. Introspective and stubbornly bent on his purpose, he had broken with established painting techniques, beginning his famous exploration of the relationship between colour, line and form. It was revolutionary.

Cézanne was the first artist to dismantle the conventional spatial devices that had been fundamental in Western art since the Renaissance. His objectives were paradoxical: to paint realistic pictures without copying nature. ‘Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realising one’s sensations’, he wrote, and the following of ‘one’s sensations’ was necessary to ‘get to the heart’ of what was before him. With colour, line and the power of his brushstrokes he could retrieve the very essence of an object or place. His ‘researches’ in paint, watercolour and pencil required a divergence from accurate perspective or traditional pictorial arrangements. As a result of the deliberate primitivising quality that Cézanne sought, the objects and their relationships in his paintings appear distorted, and space is flattened out, paving the way for those who came after him, like Picasso and Matisse. After Cézanne’s rule breaking, painting was never the same again.

Most critics poured scorn on his work, misidentifying his experiments with perspective as a lack of skill. One proclaimed him as ‘an artist whose retina is diseased’. ‘The painting of a drunken privy cleaner’, said another.

The Studio

From 1902, Cézanne spent the last four years of his life working feverishly in his studio, relishing its isolation. Its walls were painted a mid-tone grey, a colour that he mixed himself with a touch of green and took pains to get right. In his book Cézanne’s Objects, the photographer Joel Meyerowitz suggests the paint’s properties, as a background for Cezanne’s still life paintings, actually helped to give rise to modernism. The grey colour absorbs the light from the huge north facing window, eliminating reflections around the edges of the objects. The light would normally have separated the objects from their background; without such an illusion of space, Cézanne’s modern vision was more readily attained. Meyerowitz adds:

Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

The Objects

The subjects of countless still life paintings by Cézanne: the domestic bric-a-brac of jug and sugar bowl, earthenware pots, pitchers and bowls; the skulls, the little cupid figurine, and his pipe, were painted over and over again. Always, he found something fresh about them. He wrote to his friend Joachim Gasquet of his relationship with ‘those little fellows’:

People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy or soul. But that changes every day here. You have to take them, cajole them. . . .These glasses, these dishes, they talk among themselves. They whisper interminable secrets. . . . Fruits . . . love to have their portraits painted. They sit there and apologise for changing colour.

For Cézanne, there were just as many relationships in a still life as in a landscape: infinite choices to be made in the relationships between shape and colour. The paintings record not just what is seen, but the process of seeing it. As Robert Hughes observed, the fruit in these last great still lives ‘are so weighted with pictorial decision – their rosy surfaces filled, as it were, with thought – that they seem twice as solid as real fruit…’

Sometimes Cézanne would use a white cloth to enhance the colour of objects. Each still life was arranged in such a way that every element locks into the whole composition, creating a sense of inevitability and completeness that was key to Cézanne’s later works. As he wrote to a friend, the objects must ‘acquire such a unity of character and force of expression that they come across as a law.’


From 1902 on, Cézanne worked almost entirely in his studio. He would arrive at six every morning, breaking for lunch and if not painting outside, would usually return in the afternoons to work some more.

Whenever he needed company he enjoyed walks with his old childhood friend Philippe Solari, who had become a sculptor. Cézanne would talk to him ceaselessly, explaining his ideas about art and nature. Or over dinner at the rue Boulegon, their heated discussions about art would sometimes make passers-by stop in surprise. ‘The poor man,’ Cézanne wrote to Solari’s son, ‘I have saturated him with theories on painting. He must have a good constitution to have withstood it.’

He could be kind and extravagantly generous. On the rare occasions when he went into the town of Aix, he would give his money away to beggars and children in the streets, simply for the pleasure of seeing the delight on their faces. It seems that his sister who helped look after his household took care not to let him go into town with too much money.

The Struggle

The painting process was agonisingly slow. On average Cézanne would spend a hundred working sessions to produce a single still life painting; one hundred and fifty for a portrait. The fruit had long rotted in the bowl before he finished his painting and he eventually resorted to plaster imitations. Rarely was he happy with the finished work and he ripped some of his canvases to shreds in frustration. ‘I cannot attain the intensity which is revealed to my senses,’ he wrote to his son Paul. ‘I have not the magnificent colouring which animates nature.’

His growing mastery did not ease his sense of failure which had always been with him. ‘My hair is longer than my talent’, he complained as a twenty-year old. And then at sixty-six, a year before he died: ‘My age and my health will never allow me to realise the artistic dream I have pursued throughout my entire life.’

Yet Cézanne’s Impressionist friends looked on in admiration. ‘How does he do it?’ asked Renoir. ‘He can’t put two touches of paint on a canvas without success.’ Pissarro advised a beginner: ‘If you want to learn to paint, look at Cézanne’. And Monet wrote to a friend: ‘How unfortunate that this man should not have had more support in his existence. He is a true artist who has much too much self-doubt.’ These friends never lost confidence in Cézanne’s genius.

Cézanne had always sought official recognition and finally in 1904 (two years before his death) the Salon d’Automne devoted an entire room to his work. The critics were as hostile as ever, but collectors started to view his paintings as desirable. When they began selling at twice the price of Monet’s paintings, Cézanne was both pleased and dismayed. When it finally arrived, he was disdainful of public success.


It was here in his studio in September 1902 that Cézanne learned of the death of his great friend Émile Zola, for whom he had the most profound affection. When they were boys, Zola had brought him a basket of apples to thank Cézanne for rescuing him from a thrashing by schoolyard bullies. Cézanne joked that this had started him off on his famous apples (read more about that story here). Although they had been estranged for some years (Zola had treated Cézanne’s work with condescension), the news of Zola’s death affected him deeply. He had been preparing his palette when Paulin, his servant and model, burst into the room and cried: ‘Monsieur Paul, Monsieur Paul, Zola is dead!’ Cézanne burst into tears and gestured for Paulin to leave him. Paulin, checking the locked door from time to time but not daring to knock, could hear Cézanne sobbing all day.

In May 1906 a bust of Zola was unveiled in Aix, in front of a large crowd. Cézanne was visibly moved by the mayor’s speech, evoking the youth of Zola and the ‘inseparables’. Then his old friend Numa Coste, painter and journalist, spoke. Coste paid tribute to their youth:

We were then at the dawn of life, filled with vast hopes, desirous of rising above the social swamps in which impotent jealousies, spurious reputations, and unhealthy ambitions lie stagnant. We dreamed of the conquest of Paris, the possession of that intellectual home of the world, and outdoors, in the midst of arid and lonely spaces, by the shaded torrents or at the summit of marmorean escarpments, we forged the armour for this gigantic struggle…When Zola had preceded the group to Paris, he sent his first literary efforts to his old friend, Paul Cézanne, at the same time letting all of us share his hopes. We read these letters amidst the hills, in the shade of the evergreen oaks, as one reads the communiques of a campaign that is beginning.  

While listening to his friend speak, Cézanne could no longer hide his emotion and the guests saw that the old man was weeping.

Work was his one consolation, ‘being the surest way of distracting our sadness.’ Although his health was failing, he faithfully continued his ‘research’. His studio was surrounded by trees and pathways and whenever the mood took him or the light called, Cézanne would climb farther up the hill until he reached the height of Les Lauves, to a spot with a view of his beloved Mont Saint-Victoire, where he would open his paint box and set to work.


Erik Satie, Gnossiennes 1 – 6, Pianist: Klára Körmendi

The minimalist, sometimes tentative compositions of Erik Satie, full of melancholy and feeling, evoke Cezanne’s late still-lives, for me at least. The men were contemporaries, part of a group of profoundly gifted artists, writers, and musicians who were working and influencing each other in the early part of the 20th century, although it appears they did not meet.


Roger Fry, artist, critic and member of the Bloomsbury Group, was the first to introduce modern art to Britain. He organised two exhibitions of Post-Impressionism in London that were hugely influential. The first took place at the Grafton Galleries in 1910, with paintings by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Matisse and Picasso. These were rough edged, wild looking works that shocked the British public and members of the art establishment. Virginia Woolf, in her moving biography of Fry (one of the last things she wrote before she died) described the stiffly upholstered ladies who guffawed their derision, the tut-tuts of the portly gentlemen and the academics who called the painters ‘lunatics’. One famous doctor announced that Fry was clinically insane.

The Bloomsbury Group were great advocates of the latest developments in art in France and particularly admired the work of Cézanne. In 1918 on the advice of Duncan Grant, Maynard Keynes went to Paris to buy a painting of Cezanne’s from a sale of Degas’ belongings. Later that year Virginia Woolf visited Keynes’s home in London’s Bloomsbury to see the painting in the company of her sister Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, a visit which she described in a letter.

Nessa left the room and reappeared with a small parcel about the size of a large slab of chocolate. On one side are painted 6 apples by Cézanne. Roger very nearly lost his senses. I’ve never seen such a sight of intoxication. He was like a bee on a sunflower. Imagine snow falling outside, a wind like there is in the Tube, an atmosphere of yellow grains of dust, and us all gloating upon these apples. They reall­­y are very superb. The longer one looks the larger and heavier and greener and redder they become. The artists amused me very much, discussing whether he’d used viridian or emerald green, and Roger knowing the day, practically the hour, they were done by some brush mark in the back-ground.

This painting, ‘Still-life with apples’, 1877-1878, is part of the Keynes collection now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, King’s College Cambridge. Curator Dr Rebecca Birrell from the Fitzwilliam talks about this painting, and its connection to Bloomsbury here.


In 1953, Dora Maar’s close friend Jim Lord and his friend, the German scholar John Rewald, rescued Cézanne’s studio from being demolished by developers, helping to raise the funds to buy and renovate it. In the process of securing money, Lord sought out Matisse who gave him one of his drawings to sell. As a fellow Post-Impressionist, Matisse was one of the first to see the merit in Cézanne’s work, saying of his painting ‘Three Bathers’, 

I owned this canvas for thirty-seven years and I know it fairly well, I hope, though not entirely; it has sustained me spiritually in the critical moments of my career as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance… 

The studio was donated to the university of Aix where Cézanne had studied law. Once described by Robert Hughes as ‘one of the sacred places of the modern mind’, it is now open to the public.

My sister Christine is a fine painter and we visited Cézanne’s studio together. It meant a great deal to us both, but especially Chris, and this is her impression:

We arrived late after being led astray by the GPS, that insisted we could buy petrol in an empty country lane. Finally reaching the busy suburbs of Aix that now surround Cézanne’s studio, we were hot and bothered and worried it would be closed for lunch. But no, we were graciously received and climbed the stairs to the studio, where for a while we had the luxury of being the only visitors.

The studio was spacious and orderly. With its grey walls, high ceiling and the cool light flooding through the huge window, it had the calming ambiance of a cathedral. An air of expectation was borne on its silence. Cézanne’s coats and hats and the bag he used for carrying his paints and canvases were hanging on their pegs, and a still-life arrangement was ready and waiting for him, along with his palette and his brushes.

I have loved Cézanne’s works since childhood when my father used to take me to London’s Courtauld Gallery. Much later, after studying his paintings intensively in Australian art schools and poring over countless poor reproductions in books, I thought maybe I was ‘over’ him. But it took just one encounter with an original Cézanne painting to change my mind. His paintings have the power, that few others share, to affect me viscerally. They are like a punch to the solar plexus.

It was overwhelming to see the objects he had painted so many times, lined up on the shelves waiting patiently. Here they were, the pots and jugs; the skulls, the table with scalloped edges, the plaster cupid. I gazed at their familiar forms with rapt attention. They had been the heroes of many a glorious masterpiece. But in their everyday ordinariness, lacking the transforming touch of genius, they were dowdy and surprisingly uninspiring. And they were keeping quiet, ‘those little fellows’. Like relics in a cathedral, they certainly weren’t giving away their secrets.


Cézanne’s studio in Aix.

The largest retrospective exhibition of Cézanne’s work in 25 years is underway and showing at Tate Modern until March 2023.

Here is a review of the show.

A trailer for the recent film Cezanne – Portraits of a Life (2018).

The Tourism office of Aix-en-Provence.


Callow, Philip. Lost Earth: A Life of Cezanne, Ivan R Dee, 1995

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New, BBC Books, 1980

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. ‘Cézanne’s Doubt.’ In Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert Dreyfus and Patricia Dreyfus, Northwestern University Press, 1964

‘Lifestyle and Legacy of the Bloomsbury Group’, Tate Gallery Website

Lord, James. Picasso and Dora: A Personal Memoir, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1997

Meyerowitz, Joel. Cézanne’s Lost Objects, Damiani, 2017

Rewald, John. Paul Cézanne: A Biography, Schocken Books, 1968

Swinglehurst, Edmund. The Life and Works of Cezanne, Paragon Books,1994

Trachtman, Paul. ‘Cezanne: The Man Who Changed the Landscape of Art’, Smithsonian Magazine, 2006

Vollard, Ambroisie, Cézanne, Dover, 1984

Woolf, Virginia. The Question of Things Happening, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1912-1922. Ed: Nigel Nicolson, The Hogarth Press, 1976

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  1. Paula Ashworth on

    It is the most extraordinary coincidence that I should read your latest missive only 2 days after visiting the Cezanne exhibition at Tate Modern, as mentioned in your piece. I also find it extraordinary reading of the emotions felt by you and Christine on seeing his work. I left the exhibition on one of those same rare and precious “highs” of intense pleasure, which minutes later meant I HAD to purchase a wildly expensive souvenir “scarf” in the ubiquitous shop! It does not reflect those wonderful wonderful still lifes, but is composed of a myriad of stripes in glorious “Cezanne” colours!! The visit is, of course, still fresh, so I can “marry up” much of your text with my viewing, but part of me wishes I had read it in advance so that I didn’t overlook some of the less obvious details. The fact is that I needed Christine with me, repeating her much valued role as my guide in the galleries of Madrid!! Thank you, Jo, and, again, thank you for the beautiful ‘photos…..

  2. Jo Wing on

    Hi Paula,
    There had been increased interest in the first Cézanne story and I came across some details about his retrospective at Tate Modern so I thought I’d post some more about him. Chris and I would sorely love to see that show. The great thing about those big international exhbitions I’ve found is the sheer number of works, so you can really get a feeling for how a painter develops. And I agree, Chris is a wonderful companion to have when seeing art. She’s so good at explaining why a painting works. Such a great eye! Thanks for sharing your impressions with us.