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La Mer à l'Estaque, 1878–1879

Paul Cézanne (1839 - 1906)

Oil on canvas
73 x 92 cm
Musée national Picasso-Paris
© 2020. Photo Josse/Scala, Florence

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Paul Cézanne was a French Post-Impressionist painter and, over time, has come to be considered the father of modern painting. His portraits and landscapes, painted in a way that nobody had ever tried before, laid the foundations for the transition of painting from the artistic conception of the 19th century to the artistic world of the 20th century, which was a constellation of individualities, movements and groups of bohemian and anti-establishment artists, who together created what we know today as abstract art. However, during his lifetime, Cézanne was a painter who was frequently ignored, and only appreciated by those who believed in a reformist future for art. It is for this reason that he ended up working in the south of France, exacerbating his isolation from the Paris art world and refusing to trust the critics of his time.


Paul Cézanne, a painter’s painter, played a decisive role in the development of Cubism. The young artists who had known his work and understood his intellectual reflections since the beginnings of the 20th century considered him a benchmark, a paradigm of modernity. But what was it that made his landscapes so different?


On the one hand, his approach to representation stood out for the fact that he abandoned – especially in his later works – the sensation of depth that characterized Renaissance perspective; or the intention of achieving, through the use of a paintbrush, solid forms against an indefinite background. In order to represent the three dimensions, traditional perspective relied on geometry: the center of the drawings marked the confluence of the composition’s straight lines, and over these axes the objects were situated, progressively smaller as they approached the center, that represented the background. Cézanne’s canvases, in contrast, were structured to offer a bi-dimensional space, which was ordered through the slow and articulated combination of geometrically shaped blocks. His second great innovation was to make each color – which often took the form of geometrized splashes with vibrating contours – express a concrete and varied reflection of light on each surface.


Although they might seem slow, these steps towards modernity were firm. A short time after, around 1908, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque erected Cubism on top of this foundation: painting the representation of a single domestic object simultaneously from different angles. To do this, they applied the teachings of Cézanne, constructing apparently discordant repertoires with geometric figures and doing away with traditional perspective. The landscape painting by Cézanne titled La Mer a L’estaque, painted between 1878 and 1879 (and which formed part of Pablo Picasso’s personal collection until his death in 1973), therefore ranks among the works of exceptional interest in this section of Genealogies, due to its characteristics as well as its history.