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Cézanne’s Big Show

For most of his life, Paul Cézanne painted to little acclaim. He retreated to his home in the south of France and worked in isolation for years before his genius was recognized. Now, a century after his death, an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art--an

Two men on opposite sides of the Atlantic had the same idea. The year was 2000. Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, mulled over the fact that Paul Cézanne, considered by many to be the father of modern art, had died on October 23, 1906.

The National Gallery's collection includes 22 paintings and 97 drawings and prints by Cézanne. And the gallery's archives hold a trove of documents and photographs culled by the late John Rewald, author of The History of Impressionism and one of the first people to recognize Cézanne's genius. Here, thought Conisbee, were the beginnings of a 2006 exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of Cézanne's death. In France, Denis Coutagne, curator in chief of the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence–Cézanne's hometown–also was looking toward the centennial of the artist's death.

Coutagne and Conisbee met through the Société Cézanne, run by Philippe Cézanne, the painter's great-grandson. Together with Henri Loyrette, then director of Paris's Musée d'Orsay and now head of the Louvre, they planned an exhibit of 120 oil paintings and works on paper, many done by Cézanne in the last 20 years of his life.

"Cézanne in Provence," at the National Gallery of Art from January 29 to May 7, will include paintings from the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and the White House. After the exhibit's Washington run, the paintings will go to Provence.

Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence on January 19, 1839, the illegitimate son of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, a hatmaker, and Anne Élisabeth Honorine Aubert. The family lived above the hattery on Aix's main street.

As a youth, Cézanne studied Virgil and the classics as well as drawing and painting at the Musée d'Aix, now the Musée Granet, where he saw paintings by Ingres and Rembrandt. His best friend was Émile Zola, who would become an art critic, journalist, and novelist.

To please his father, who had given up hatmaking for banking, Cézanne attended law school but did not finish. Determined to paint, he joined Zola in Paris in 1861.

With an allowance from his father–and later an inheritance–Cézanne was free to paint without worrying about selling his works. That was fortunate, because he sold not one painting during his time in Paris. Through his friendship with painter Camille Pissarro, Cézanne met Impressionist artists such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas but remained an outsider.

At age 30, Cézanne met Hortense Fiquet, who would be his model and mistress for many years; she gave birth to their child, also named Paul, in 1872. In 1874 Cézanne's work finally was exhibited with other Impressionist works, but success eluded him. In time he moved back to Aix to paint in isolation.

Zola wrote a novel, L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), published in 1886, about an artist who was a failure during his lifetime. When Cézanne recognized himself in the book, their friendship ended.

Not until Cézanne was in his mid-fifties, when the art dealer Ambroise Vollard organized an exhibit of Cézanne's paintings in Paris, did his work begin to attract attention. Cézanne's style, which had a structure and solidity that many Impressionist works lacked, influenced many young artists. Still, it was avant garde–the director of the Musée d'Aix declared that "no painting of Cézanne's will hang in this museum as long as I am alive."

That director is long dead, and it is fitting that "Cézanne in Provence," after its run in Washington, will move to the recently renovated Musée Granet, from June 9 to September 17, in a tribute at last to its former student.

Arts editor Susan Davidson, who has been trying to learn French since her teens, can be reached at