I Paint Pictures Too!: Cary James Marshall on Paul Cézanne

From Kerry James Marshall

There are very few museums these days that do not have at least one Cézanne painting in their collections. Of course, the Impressionists he evokes are also museum artists. With this museum study, almost a hundred and fifteen years after his death and Cézanne already known as the father of modern painting, the question for me is: What is the purpose of this new assessment?

A so-called artist’s painter, Cézanne enjoyed some modest acclaim during his lifetime. In his letters he seemed humbled and grateful for any public acknowledgment that his efforts were not entirely in vain. In retrospect, Cézanne’s status seems inevitable, but for any truly aspiring artist, critical validation during his lifetime is the only assurance that matters.

Portrait of the artist with a pink backgroundabout 1875

Paul Cézanne. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, gift of Mr. Philippe Meyer, 2000. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Adrien Didierjean

And what about the endurance that Cézanne pursues? Is there still something vital to us in the pictures he took? Do they wear their age lightly? Pablo Picasso stated that for him “in art there is no past or future. If a work cannot always live in the present, it should not be considered at all.2 Artists who believe their work meets all the important criteria held by museums must internalize this in order to persevere. In 2022, however, we are a long way from the revolutionary phase of art, when the status of painting as a primary mode of representation was vigorously contested. Today, every kind of image that is made is presented as if it has an a priori claim to relevance. No one now looks to nature or to oneself as a source of revelation in art as Cézanne did.

Nowadays, artists don’t even learn to paint by copying other paintings. Looking at pictures of paintings seems to be enough. However, the art of painting has again taken on quasi-mystical overtones following a retreat from skill and a renewed suspicion of authority.

Photography, having once freed artists from a faithful representation of the world around them, reasserted its primacy over painting as the reference model of choice. Even Cézanne contradicted his worship of nature as a typical source by relying on a photograph for his famous painting of a man bathing now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Paul Cézanne. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Lily P. Bliss Collection. Conservation made possible by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York

We may ask: What sensations of sight, color, and light determine the arrangement of planes and strokes in this picture? Has depicting the insurmountable discrepancies between seeing and drawing become a formula easily applicable in all circumstances? Portraits and still lifes do not challenge the artist’s powers of observation and selection in the way that outdoor landscape painting does. The artist needed a series of long sessions – probably lasting several years – to resolve Madame Cézanne in a yellow chair, which raises questions about its implementation. What was Cézanne trying to fix after all this time? Any painted picture should work. And all paintings work according to a set of ideals and principles invented in advance.

Cézanne is not unusual in this respect. Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh. All these artists strive for uniqueness. All of them create radiant and captivating pictures. Of course, when I say “captivating,” it’s not the subject of the painting itself that draws me to it, even with the portraits. I am as indifferent to the identity and life stories of the sitters as most art historians who write about Cézanne claim he was. Figures are the means to achieve a pictorial goal. The best portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, unparalleled in the history of painting, were rejected by Cézanne, who dismissed Ingres as “only a very small artist.”3

Rather, it is the integrated nature of the picture, its color, the relationship of each part to the whole, that is alluring. Do the people, whatever they are, real or imagined, look good in the picture? Does it look right? This merging, calm or dynamic, attracts our attention and encourages closer examination.

For example: the painting Madame Cézanne in a yellow chair is listed as a masterpiece in Rudolf Arnheim’s book Art and Visual Perception: Psychology of the Creative Eye (first published in 1954), although he acknowledges “its simplicity” that museum-goers may be reluctant to spend much time on. Arnheim provides a detailed analysis—with which I largely agree—of the forms and forces that give the painting its energy.4

Paul Cézanne

This painting does not conform to the brick-by-brick pattern of color planes generally assumed to reflect Cézanne’s method, but it is rich in many of the formal features we now take for granted as his. Parts of the painting alternate between flatness and volume. Edges and contours settle in, then disappear. Objects in the foreground and background alternately overlap and merge. Continuous shapes are misaligned from one side of the shape to the other. These are among the peculiar but deliberate incongruities that give life to Cézanne’s painting and contribute to an inexhaustible sense of fascination.

— Kerry James Marshall, artist

Kerry James Marshall’s essay on Cézanne first appeared in print in the catalog for the exhibition Cézanne, along with essays by fellow artists Ethel Adnan, Julia Fish, and Ellen Gallagher, among others; art history records; and input from Art Institute restorers. Learn more about this post.

Outside Voices articles feature creative thinkers and makers from Chicago’s rich cultural community engaged with artworks in the collection.


1. Paul Cezanne, quoted in Richard W. Murphy, The World of Cézanne: 1839–1906 (New York: Time-Life Library of Art, 1968), 70. [Opening sentence of essay]

2. Pablo Picasso, quoted in Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, Artists for art: from the 14th to the 20th century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1945), 418.

3. Paul Cezanne, quoted in Goldwater and Treves, Artists under Art364.

4. Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 27.


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