Paul Cezanne’s (1839-1906) painting career defined the modernization of fine art on the cusp of the twentieth century. Though his achievements are generally characterized as Post-Impressionist (along with Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat), Cezanne was an exact contemporary of the older generation of French Impressionists. As a young painter in the 1860s, Cezanne was taken under the wing of Camille Pissarro, just as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were. In 1874, Cezanne participated in the First Impressionist Exhibition showing three works, including A Modern Olympia (Figure 1), which achieved instant notoriety even among the other bold and challenging paintings exhibited that year. Impressionism, on the whole, boldly pushed forward an early Parisian modernity in the fine arts in the nineteenth century, but Cezanne’s brash and innovative treatment of his canvases stands out even among his avant-garde peers. Cezanne’s A Modern Olympia (1872-72) particularly, as a controversial painting in the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition, exemplifies the longest reach into modern art by any artist of his day and within the work, modernity itself can be better understood.
Modernity in fine art is the creative and visual reaction to the modernization of Europe as characterized by the influx of new technologies, economic prosperity of the middle class, and the urbanization of the European populace. Art was by no means the impetus for this drastic social change, but reflects it with particular clarity. Irving Lewis Horowitz, in his article regarding the development of social structure in the century, expresses modernity in broad terms, stressing that from different social perspectives the “modern” takes on a variety of personas:
“Economists see modernization primarily in terms of human application of technology to the control of nature’s resources; political scientists have emphasized the disruptive features of nation-building; while psychologists have tended to stress factors such as the growth of knowledge, education and achievements. Modernization in these various guises has to do with the human transformation of culture and rapid mobilization.” (Horowitz, 24)
Artists see modernization as the advent of the abstract, the dissembling of perspective and representational illusion, the departure of artists from the academic salon, and the complete reconstruction of the purpose of art within the drastically changing society around them. The art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect all the angles as stated by Horowitz. The modern society presents to artists political and social fodder for artistic commentary. The prevalence of advertising, which employed visual language to promote the new structures of mass production and consumption, and the invention of photography as a new technology, played pivotal roles in the development of modern art. The visual language and artistic object had to be drastically altered to accommodate the social change and technological advancement. The long-standing traditions of academic art swiftly became irrelevant to the eyes of the modern society.
In her article, Selling, Seduction, and Soliciting the Eye, Ruth Iskin explores the effects the modern presentation of the visual language had on the general viewer. All of a sudden, visual representation was no longer confined to the gallery or the walls of the wealthy collector, but was visible to everyone in the form of advertisements. The pervasion and commodification of visual representation drastically changed how art was viewed: “While pre-modern spectatorship is ‘concentration,’ ‘contemplation,’ and being ‘absorbed,’ modern spectatorship is ‘absent minded,’ a ‘reception in the state of distraction’ and an ‘appropriation’ formed by ‘habit’ rather than ‘attentive concentration’” (Iskin, 39). Artists had to imbue their work with a quality capable of addressing this new audience. Often, modern art was aimed at shocking its audience out of complacency and confronting viewers with political and/or social taboos capable of shedding light on any number of issues. Take for example the shocking presentation of gender and class stratification Edouard Manet offers the salon in 1865 with his painting: Olympia (Figure 2).
Before we get to Cezanne, we must understand Manet’s Olympia (Figure 2), which Cezanne specifically references, in terms of its radical modernism. Manet shocked the Paris Salon with Olympia in 1865. He presents the viewer with a female figure, easily recognized as a prostitute by the painting’s name and visual clues, in the reclining composition of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). With one foot in Venetian Renaissance tradition, Manet equates the modern prostitute with the classical goddess. Olympia confronts the viewer with a direct gaze and gesture that is intelligent and autonomous rather that seductive or ideal and she is painted with flattened value shifts that secure this work in the budding modernism of the era. His creative insolence, social stance, and treatment of paint on canvas all mark the work as modern, before modern art really had a definition. By offering a figure to represent the commodity of sexuality that is prostitution, Manet confronts the Academy’s long-standing traditions of presenting tantalizing female nudes to a male audience. By pushing the flatness and painterly treatment of the canvas, Manet abruptly leaves conventions of the Salon behind (Duchting, 41-45). Olympia, in the treatment of the paint, as well as taboo subject matter is a particularly modern work from Manet in 1865, but Paul Cezanne will take this subject another step forward in 1874.
On April 15, 1874, two weeks before the opening of Paris’ official Salon, the First Impressionist Exhibition was held in the studio the photographer, Nadar. The exhibition marks a stark departure of modern artists from the academic salon and though all those who exhibited were considered radical, Paul Cezanne was a misfit even there. He presented apparently brutal and clumsy images of violence and sexuality that, to the eyes of nineteenth century Parisians, appeared extremely odd and ugly. He left thick splotches of paint on his canvases, he made little or no attempt at rendering realistic modeling, illusion of complex space or perspective, but Camille Pissarro saw something in the young Cezanne and championed his inclusion within the modern art of the Impressionists (Rosenblum, 357). Still, he stood apart, and rather than giving his audience the faithful devotion to light and color theory, a focus on the passing instant and the use of impasto to gather a quick impression of visual truth Cezanne, according to a critic of the day “merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman who paints in delirium tremens.” (Verdi, 67) This expressive approach cements Cezanne’s historical exclusion from the Impressionist movement and pushes him into the Post-Impressionism of Van Gogh and Gauguin, despite his career spanning the Impressionist era from beginning to end and his involvement in the Impressionist exhibitions.
One of Cezanne’s submissions to the First Impressionist Exhibition, A Modern Olympia was more radical than the rest. In both its subject, and its title, Cezanne alludes to Manet’s famous piece of only ten years prior. Cezanne was a self declared admirer of Manet and his presentation of the subject was likely inspired partially by a veneration for Olympia. But, according to Richard Verdi: “Considering its small size, sketchy handling, and substitution of Manet’s insolent courtesan by an ungainly, almost ape-like nude, it’s hard to imagine that the picture was conceived in a wholly reverential manner” (Verdi, 67). Cezanne uses the shocking and confrontational modernity of Olympia, its taste still in the mouths of Parisian academics, and progresses the subject to new levels of abstraction and indictment of Salon norms.
In subject, A Modern Olympia is similar to Manet’s original: the central reclining female nude, the black servant attending to her, the flowers large in the composition and the symbolic pet animal are all motifs taken directly from Manet, but Cezanne offers us several poignant changes. Most apparent is the painterly treatment of the canvas. The flurry of bravura brushstroke and impasto was not out of place in the 1874 exhibition, but Cezanne imbues his strokes with a violent passion absent in Monet’s or Renoir’s work of the same year, he flattens the space be subduing highlights and shadows toward a flat mid-tone. The subject is more important in Cezanne’s work than the light or the moment. The erect and alert dog on the floor is a specific and notable change from Manet’s arch-backed cat, though it’s clearly not a return to the lap dog in Titian’s Renaissance work and suggests a tense and wanting sexuality. Of greatest significance is Cezanne’s decision to zoom his vantage point out, including the male patron of this brothel. (Lewis, 139)
The man in the foreground is likely Cezanne himself, a self-portrait included to indicate the artist’s personal role of voyeur, or perhaps all artists’ voyeuristic role. Some scholar’s argue instead that it is a portrait of the Realist artist Gustave Coubet, and perhaps a commentary on the introduction of modernity in the Nineteenth century. Regardless of the identity of this man, Cezanne’s inclusion of the wealthy male gazer and brothel patron in his composition is momentous (Platzman, 128). In Manet’s composition, the Olympia confronts the viewer, while in Cezanne’s the viewer is removed a step further. Rather than being directly confronted, the viewer sees the Parisian, bourgeois (as indicated by the top hat), and male patron whom Olympia challenges. The audience is set back in their prior role of anonymous onlooker, observing the composition from outside, even judging the morality of the voyeur within the picture until they realize his position is the one they are simultaneously embodying. Through this compositional step of withdrawal, Cezanne is turning the subject of his art toward the presentation modern art itself, and the act of displaying it and viewing it in the gallery setting. This device marks A Modern Olympia as radically ahead of its time, considerably more modern than Manet’s Olympia. Cezanne’s inclusion of the word ‘modern’ in his title is specific and appropriate, portending the identity crisis the fine arts would experience in the mid and late twentieth century.
Cezanne’s treatment of each canvas throughout his career was a mark along the developing path of modernity. In his still lives, landscapes and portraits Cezanne continues to see his subjects with an avant-garde eye, rendering his paintings with expressive bravura and geometric abstraction. Cezanne was “the first great master who appeared to reject inherited and shared systems of perspective, of modeling in the darks and lights, of anatomical truth, in order to create a visual order that was satisfactory to him and, is necessary, to him alone” (Rosenblum, 396.) His innovations helped inspire the developments of expressionism in the 1890s, cubism in the 1910s, and even minimalism in the 1960s and his contribution to the history of art is fundamental. A Modern Olympia exemplifies an early piece of Cezanne’s innovative genius. The comment it makes on the role of art in the swiftly changing world, that art can be entirely self-reflective, that the rough stroke of a brush can be enough to indicate a nude figure, that the gallery setting and voyeurism of the salon is not above moral judgment, sets it firmly in the modern era. It is no surprise that Paul Cezanne is widely considered one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century and that his body of work continues to be referenced by artists today.
(Figure 1) Paul Cezanne, A Modern Olympia, 1873-74. Oil on Canvas, 18 x 21½”. Musee d’Orsay, Paris
(Figure 2) Edouard Manet, Olympia (Salon of 1865). Oil on Canvas, 51 x 74¾”. Musee d’Orsay, Paris
- Duchting, Hajo. Edouard Manet, Images of Parisian Life, Munich, Germany: Prestel-Verlag, 1995.
- Horowitz, Irving Louis. “Tradition, Modernity and Industrialization: Toward an Integrated Developmental Paradigm” In Tradition and Modernity: The Role of Tradidionalism in the Modernization Process, edited by Jessie G. Lutz and Sarah El-Shakhs, 23-35. Washington D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1982.
- Iskin, Ruth E.. “Selling, Seduction, and Solicitin the Eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 25-44
- Lewis, Mary Tompkins. Cezanne, Chapter 5: “The First Nudes and Bathers”. London, UK: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000.
- Platzman, Steven. Cezanne, The Self Portraits. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
- Rosenblum, Robert, and Janson, H.W., 19th-Century Art Revised and Updated Edition, “1874: The First Impressionist Exhibition”, 349-358, 396-407, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2005.
- Verdi, Richard, Cezanne, London, UK: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992.