Cézanne on the artistic temperament

“With only a little temperament, one can be a lot of painter.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on insomnia.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

The opening yesterday of the exhibition Cézanne Drawing at MoMA seemed like a good excuse to look into the legendary French artist’s creative process. So, last week, I spent some time with Alex Danchev’s 2012 biography, Cézanne: A Life, to see what I could find out. In particular, I was looking for information on Cézanne’s concept of réalisation, which I first read about in a 1988 interview with the English painter Bridget Riley (found in this book). Talking about her own process, Riley said:

In making the paintings I proceed step by step, and test the ground before I make a move. . . . In a daydream way I have a sort of hunger about what I am going to do, or rather about the sensation I want the painting to precipitate or convey. It’s actually bringing this sensation into existence that is the difficulty; what Cézanne called ‘realization’.

In his biography, Danchev never really defines réalisation, but you get a strong sense of it nonetheless. For Cézanne, it didn’t just mean that a given work “succeeded,” exactly; it was more elusive than that. It involved a union of subject matter and the artist’s unique perception of that subject matter. As Riley said, it was about bringing a specific sensation into existence for the viewer. And, for Cézanne, it was tied up with the idea of temperament. Danchev writes:

For Cézanne, temperament was a test of character and moral worth, or moral fiber. According to this conception, temperament governed human potential—more exactly, human-being potential. In art, as in life, temperament was the fundamental requirement. “Only original capacity, that is, temperament can carry someone to the objective he should attain,” he instructed [Charles] Camoin. Cézanne thought of himself as seeing nature through a painter’s temperament. “With only a little temperament,” he told [Émile] Bernard, “one can be a lot of painter.”

I like that idea! I don’t know if I agree that some people have more “original capacity” than others—but it does seem as if the best or most interesting work comes from an ideal pairing of subject matter and individual temperament.

(Am I making any sense here? Feel free to leave a comment.)

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My other favorite nugget from Danchev’s biography is this portrait of Cézanne at work in the late 1890s, when he was painting landscapes around an area of abandoned quarries in Provence and lodging nearby with a peasant named Eugène Couton. Couton remembered Cézanne as polite and happy to chat at the end of his workday. But, he said,

oo la la, you didn’t dare come near him when he was painting, he would give you such a vicious look that you would be frightened to death. But you couldn’t understand his painting anyway, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. He made a lot of them, dauby looking things, big ones too. . . . He started a big one of the Sainte­-Victoire from the side of the hill over there, just blocked in a little bit, but you could tell it was the Sainte-Victoire even so. Well, one day he was looking at it and you could tell by the look in his eye that he wasn’t quite satisfied with it, he seemed to be all out of sorts. And, coquing de bong diou [goddman it], do you know what he did? He picked up a big rock and threw it right through the middle of the canvas!

Cézanne throwing the rock through his canvas has become part of the artist’s myth. But it’s worth noting that his usual experience of painting was not so much frustration as absorption. Cézanne himself reported that his eyes would become so glued to a piece of the landscape he was painting that “it’s painful tearing them away. . . . My wife tells me they pop out of my head, all bloodshot.” Pulling his body away was no easier. He said, “When I get up from the painting, I feel a kind of giddiness, an ecstasy, as if I were stumbling around in the fog.”


In 1923, Cézanne’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard, published a book on the late artist that is full of colorful anecdotes about Cézanne’s lifestyle and working habits. Perhaps my favorite detail is the fact that, according to Vollard, Cézanne “could not endure being watched while at his easel.” Vollard writes:

Renoir, who used to accompany Cézanne on painting trips during his visit to the Jas de Bouffan, told me just how acute the painter’s susceptibilities were. An old woman was in the habit of installing herself with her knitting a few paces from where they used to paint. Her proximity always threw Cézanne into a state of extreme exasperation. One day he could stand it no longer. Seeing her approach, with his keen and piercing eyes, from a great distance, he cried: “Here comes the old cow!” and in spite of all Renoir’s efforts to stay him, he packed up his traps and marched off in a rage.

It is easy to imagine his anger if he were surprised with brush in hand. One day when he was working in the field with a young painter named Le Bail, whom he had put in front of him so that the younger man could not watch him work, a passer-by who had approached unheard said in a loud voice, “I like the young man’s picture better.” Cézanne quit at once, furious that any one should have spied on him while he was painting, and very much annoyed at the lout’s reflection on his work.


From the archive:


I’m devoting the last issue of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)

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