Review: Cézanne: A Biography by Alex Danchev

I am an ordinary reader who knows a little about art but I am no expert. I already like Cézanne’s later work but I know nothing about him, and I hoped that this book would tell me more about his life and about his work. It did both these things but I found it a most frustrating book to read, not just because the text is discursive but also because the layout of the book makes it hard to read.

The book is well illustrated, with small colour reproductions of work by Cézanne and other artists grouped together in three sections. There are also back-and-white drawings and photographs scattered throughout the text. However, the coloured illustrations are not in the order in which they are mentioned in the text, which means that one has to page back-and-forth through the book to find them. To take just two examples: in a single paragraph dealing with self-portraits the colour plates referred to are numbers 3, 28 and 25. All are in the first group of illustrations, but separated from each other by five or six pages. In another place, a portrait reproduced in plate 5 (front section) is compared with one reproduced in plate 59 (back section). To add to the problems, the black-and-white illustrations have no information with them and must be looked up by page-number at the front of the book; and the numerous notes, many of which are worth reading, are collected at the back of the book. The constant need to refer to different parts of a hefty book is cumbersome and irritating, and there is no built-in book-mark to make it easy to return to your place in the text.

As to the text: Danchev is clearly an art expert and he is very familiar with the world in which Cézanne lived and painted. But he often expects the reader to know as much about that Paris art scene and the artists and dealers involved in it as he does. Some names (Monet, Manet, Ronoir, for example)  are very well-known, some (like Achille Emperaire) much less so. He also jumps about in time to quote from a huge range of sources many of which have nothing to do with Cézanne but which just happen to include a felicitous phrase which Danchev wants to borrow. And not only does he deal with Cézanne’s life but he also describes, fairly extensively at  times, the lives of his family and friends. Some of this is interesting but too much of it is digression and Cézanne’s life gets somewhat lost in the process.

This is not helped by the seemingly random inclusion of five sections which deal with Cézanne’s self-portraits and are entitled ‘The Brooder’, ‘The Desperado’, ‘The Dogged’, ‘The Plasterer’, and ‘The Inscrutable’ . Only belatedly, and after some confusion, did I realize that these sections were self-contained and not a consecutive part of the story.

Both Zola and Pissaro were Cézanne’s close friends, and they are legitimately written about and quoted at length, but often Zola’s novels are taken as commentary on Cézanne’s life, as are the novels of other authors. Diary entries written by friends and friends-of-friends, and reported conversations between Cézanne’s friends and acquaintances, are also used fairly extensively. These may or may not throw light on the man himself.

Cézanne’s wife has a chapter to herself in an attempt to redress her customary neglect by Cézanne’s biographers. However, Danchev’s account of her relies on two rather formal letters which she wrote; and Cézanne’s many portraits of her, in each of which she looks different.The most Danchev can say in the end is that the “soul” of Hortense, “Le Boule (the Ball or Dumpling)” as Cézanne’s friends called her, “is encoded in the upper lip” in her portraits.

So, did I enjoy reading the book? No.

Did I learn anything from it about Cézanne and his art? Yes. There are valuable insights into his character and his art. I learned that Cézanne was independent, determined (“balsy” is a favourite adjective of Danchev’s), hard-working, touchy about celebrity when it came, and dismissive of the trappings of success. He pursued his unique approach to his art regardless of the opinion of others, and his work influenced artists like Picasso and Braque, and has gone on influencing artists ever since..

For those with patience, there amusing and interesting parts to this book and insights to be gained.

Buy the book here…

Ann Skea
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Ann Skea

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