Cezanne: A Life

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With 32-pages of full-color inserts, and black-and-white illustrations throughout.

Alex Danchev gives us the first comprehensive assessment of the revolutionary work and restless life of Paul Cézanne to be published in decades. One of the most influential painters of his time and beyond, Cézanne was the exemplary artist-creator of the modern age who changed the way we see ...

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Cezanne: A Life

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With 32-pages of full-color inserts, and black-and-white illustrations throughout.

Alex Danchev gives us the first comprehensive assessment of the revolutionary work and restless life of Paul Cézanne to be published in decades. One of the most influential painters of his time and beyond, Cézanne was the exemplary artist-creator of the modern age who changed the way we see the world.
With brisk intellect, rich documentation, and eighty-eight color and fifty-two black-and-white illustrations, Danchev tells the story of an artist who was originally considered a madman, a barbarian, and a sociopath. Beginning with the unsettled teenager in Aix, Danchev takes us through the trials of a painter who believed that art must be an expression of temperament but was tormented by self-doubt, who was rejected by the Salon for forty years, who sold nothing outside his immediate circle until his thirties, who had a family that he kept secret from his father until his forties, who had his first exhibition at the age of fifty-six—but who fiercely maintained his revolutionary beliefs. Danchev shows us how the beliefs Cézanne held and the life he led became the obsession and inspiration of artists, writers, poets, and philosophers from Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to Samuel Beckett and Allen Ginsberg. A special feature of the book is a remarkable series of Cézanne’s self-portraits, reproduced in full color.
Cézanne is not only the fascinating life of a visionary artist and extraordinary human being but also a searching assessment of his ongoing influence in the artistic imagination of our time. A stunning portrait of a monumentally important artist, this is a biography not to be missed.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Both Picasso and Matisse honored French artist Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) as "the father of us all," praise that demonstrates the key role that this Impressionist played for succeeding generations. Given that importance, it is especially pleasing to welcome Alex Danchev's Cézanne: A Life, the first major biography of the artist in decades. To the project, the British author brings a bibliography that includes a life of George Braque that was lauded for its "rare and admirable precision." In his present subject, he himself sees the exemplary artist-creator of the modern period, a painter who seems to have been waiting for a biography such as this. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
Danchev's (On War and Art and Terror) biography of painter Paul Cézanne is both exhaustive and occasionally exhausting. The author tries to rein in his elusive subject with details ranging from Cézanne's childhood friendship with writer Emile Zola to descriptions of the artist's late-career workdays. The result reveals how difficult it is to sum up an artist whose work has drawn the accolades of everyone from Sir Kenneth Clark to Allen Ginsburg. Cézanne was both "a sensitive brute" as an Aix en Provence schoolboy and an aging madman. The art of his most productive years, observed sculptor Alberto Giacometti, "revolutionized the representation of the exterior world," undoing and expanding the perspective that painting had celebrated since the Renaissance. Cézanne in some respects was a forerunner of a modern artistic celebrity, whose persona, while tied to his extraordinary productivity, also assumed a life of its own, both in literature and the public imagination. Danchev is deeply versed in Cézanne as legend, man, and artist, and this account encompasses all of these. 32p full-color insert. Illus. Agent: Inkwell Management. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for Cézanne
“Impressive . . . Danchev has researched every facet and nuance of Paul Cézanne’s life. [He] rightly subscribes to the theory that understanding the man is important to understanding his work.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“A major work of scholarship. With great sensitivity and genuine brio, Danchev paints a compelling portrait of the artist, who managed to overcome the demons that haunted him to transform himself into what many consider the greatest painter of his age. This is the best account to date of Cézanne’s astonishing career—a book that will survive the test of time.”
—John Golding, author of Visions of the Modern
Praise for Georges Braque
“A vivid and cogent portrayal of a grave and moral man.”
—Julian Barnes, The Guardian, “Books of the Year”
“In this first biography of Braque, Danchev has produced an extraordinary book which, though very different in style from John Richardson’s Picasso or Hilary Spurling’s Matisse, matches theirs in interest. Its brisk account is written with compelling urgency.”
—Frances Spalding, The Independent
“The fun-filled partnership between Braque and Picasso is brought to glorious life in this new biography.”
—Peter Conrad, The Observer
“A pleasure to read: persuasive, rewarding, controversial, and, above all, witty.”
—Modern Painters
Kirkus Reviews
A formidable biography of the Father of Modern Art bound for the annals of academia. Danchev (International Relations/Univ. of Nottingham; On Art and War and Terror, 2009, etc.) has researched every facet and nuance of Paul Cézanne's life (1839–1906). His comfortable childhood in Provence, his years in Paris, where he was influenced by the Impressionists, and his dependence on the allowance from his father created the artist some suggested was "not all there." There is a wealth of information in the correspondence between the artist and his childhood friend, Émile Zola, in which they parodied Virgil, joked in Latin and discussed Stendhal. Zola knew that Cézanne's art was a corner of nature seen through his own curious temmpérammennte. The artist didn't paint things; he painted the effect they had on him. He saw colors as he read a book or looked at a person, understood the inner life of an object and let his brain rework that object, sometimes illuminating it, sometimes distorting it. Danchev rightly subscribes to the theory that understanding the man is important to understanding his work, and he attempts to parse Cézanne's psyche, digging into the background of nearly every author he discussed in his letters, quoting every writer who based a character on the man. Cézanne's work will influence artists and confuse patrons for decades to come, especially those who have the patience to study Danchev's comprehensive, occasionally ponderous tome. A fairly impressive achievement of a Sisyphean task--definitely a book to keep in your library.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In 1894, the painter Claude Monet organized a small lunch at his estate in Giverny to introduce the critic Gustave Geffroy to the fifty-five-year-old Paul Cézanne, about whom Geffroy had just published an important article. A seasoned host, Monet invited a few others, including the writer Octave Mirbeau, the politician Georges Clemenceau, and the illustrious Auguste Rodin, all of whom came hoping to meet the elusive painter from Aix. Although Cézanne had already completed such masterpieces as Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Armchair and The Card Players, he was just beginning to gain public recognition. The following year, 1895, he would have his first one- man show and also begin work on a majestic dreamscape titled The Large Bathers. But in the company of those assembled at Giverny that day, he was foremost a curiosity. "It's all set for Wednesday," Monet wrote to Geffroy. "I hope that Cézanne will already be here and that he will join us, but he is so peculiar, so fearful of seeing new faces, that I am afraid he may let us down, despite his wish to meet you. What a pity that this man has not had more support in his life!"

Cézanne didn't let them down. Not only did he show, but he behaved memorably. In Geffroy's telling, "[Cézanne] gave evidence of the extent of his innocence—or his confusion—by taking Mirbeau and I aside to tell us, with tears in his eyes: 'He's not proud, Monsieur Rodin, he shook my hand! A decorated man!!!' Better still, after lunch, he knelt before Rodin, in the middle of the path, to thank him again for shaking his hand. Hearing things like this, one could only feel sympathy for the primitive soul of Cézanne, who was at that moment as sociable as he could be."

In Cézanne: A Life, British scholar Alex Danchev takes a skeptical look at the conventional wisdom about one of the nineteenth century's most revolutionary and influential artists. In the case of the Giverny lunch, for example, Danchev writes that "Geffroy's account has the flavor of a set piece, inspired perhaps by other set pieces." Specifically, he singles out Geffroy's use of the phrase "shy and violent" to describe Cézanne. As it happens, Èmile Bernard used the same phrase in his own description of Cézanne meeting van Gogh—a meeting that never took place. To Danchev, Cézanne was putting them on. Perhaps he was moved by Rodin's gesture, but such an outlandish display shouldn't be taken at face value. More than once Cézanne played the role of ridiculous country bumpkin. Monet, to his credit, recognized the act as the reflex of Cézanne's pride.

For most of his life Cézanne kept Paris and its art circles at arm's length. Instead, he preferred the light, color, and isolation of the landscape of his native Provence. For years the only audience he had was that of his peers, many of whom collected his works. Even then, they seemed to need his inspiration and challenge more than he needed their support. Monet hung his favorite Cézannes in the bedroom, where he came to know them intimately, and Madame Monet covered them up when her husband was struggling with his own work. Gauguin resolved that Cézanne was something of an Eastern mystic, and Renoir famously asked, "How does he do it? He can't put two strokes of color on a canvas without it already being very good." Cézanne's importance to the next generation of painters only grew—his reputed ability to paint the "soul" of an apple or a sugar bowl became mythic. In 1899, the little-known Matisse purchased Cézanne's Three Bathers. He could hardly afford it at the time, and he "worshipped it in private for thirty-seven years," writes Danchev. To Picasso and Braque, Cézanne also presented lessons, not just about color but also about artistic temperament. "He melds his life in his work, the work in his life." The demand for biographical insight only increased.

There was one person for whom Cézanne grew not in success but in disappointment. The most contentious aspect of Cézanne's biography is how it relates to Èmile Zola's 1886 novel L'Oeuvre, about a failed painter named Claude Lantier who comes across a great deal like Cézanne himself. Because Cézanne and Zola were old friends from boyhood, L'Oeuvre has taken on the force of memoir. "Lantier's stunted sociability has entered the biographical bloodstream, so contaminating Cézanne's psychology (or pathology) that it has become something like received wisdom," writes Danchev. "In other words, the novel is the seedbed or breeding ground of the Cézanne of legend." Although they'd planned early on to move to Paris and become artists together, life in the capital didn't inspire Cézanne in the same way, and they slowly grew apart. Zola used to declare his friend the greatest painter of his generation, until one day he started to ask, "Isn't he a failure?"

After the publication of L'Oeuvre, Cézanne and Zola never communicated again. Danchev doesn't dispute that the novel might have contributed to the rupture, but, he argues, there is little evidence that their split had so simplistic a cause, or even that Cézanne read Zola's book as an attack on himself: "Cézanne did not identify with Claude Lantier," he proclaims.

It's not surprising to find Danchev making the literary case—he has a distracting habit of dropping quotes from Kafka and Beckett, among others—but it's a compelling point, especially presented in the context of some of Cézanne's favorite novels and poems. Danchev reminds us again and again what a great reader Cézanne was—of Virgil, Flaubert, Balzac, Baudelaire, and others. And in upending the accepted narrative about L'Oeuvre, he brings this to bear. Cézanne, he thinks, was too intelligent and sensitive for such a crude and one- sided reading. He wasn't only "capable of recognizing and accepting his fictional selves, he was also capable of distinguishing between art and life," writes Danchev. "He understood perfectly well that Zola was not writing his memoirs, but rather a cycle of novels, diligently planned and remorselessly plotted."

In any case, Zola didn't need to write a novel to display his capacity for cruelty toward his old friend. The last time Cézanne visited Zola in Paris, he found him surrounded by expensive furniture, art, and artifacts, but not a single one of his own paintings on the walls. It might have been the biggest betrayal of all.

Kolby Yarnell has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, and New York magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @ktyarnell.

Reviewer: Kolby Yarnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307377074
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/23/2012
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 444,093
  • Product dimensions: 7.34 (w) x 9.44 (h) x 1.72 (d)

Meet the Author

ALEX DANCHEV was educated at University College, Oxford; Trinity Hall, Cambridge; and King’s College London. He is the author of several highly acclaimed biographies, including Georges Braque. His most recent books are a collection of essays, On Art and War and Terror, and 100 Artists’ Manifestos. He writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement and Times Higher Education. He has held fellowships at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.; St. Antony’s College, Oxford; and King’s College London. He is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. He lives in England.

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Read an Excerpt


A Life
By Alex Danchev


Copyright © 2012 Alex Danchev
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307377074

1: The Dauber and the Scribbler

The schoolboy Paul Cézanne was a sensitive brute. At thirteen, he was almost full-grown. He entered the Collège Bourbon in Aix as a half-boarder in the sixth grade in 1852. Half-boarders slept at home—in Cézanne’s case, a bourgeois house in the center of the town, a fifteen-minute walk away—but spent most of their waking hours at school, from seven in the morning (six in summer) until seven in the evening. Like many Aixois families, the Cézannes took advantage of the opportunity to combine public education and domestic education, as the school prospectus tactfully put it, for a modest three hundred francs per year, dinner and snack included. This arrangement continued for his first four years. For the last two he became a day boy. Whether he was by then sufficiently domesticated must be open to doubt.

Intelligent, spirited, somewhat introverted, he was clever enough and sturdy enough to get by with the other boys. He boasted of translating one hundred Latin verses in no time at all, for the price of two sous. “I was a businessman, by Jove!” It was as commercial as he ever got. His ambitions were inarticulate. Among friends, he was eager for adventure: boys’ own pursuits, of a wholesome kind, spiced with poetry. Girls were out of bounds. They could be adored but not accosted. Making love meant serenading the object of one’s affections from afar—the ungovernable in search of the unattainable. For Cézanne, romantic fervor and libidinous impulse vied with conventional inhibition. He was unsure of himself, but Aix was his stamping ground. Here, he knew the form. He had the patter, or the patois. He spoke the language.

In the year below was little Émile Zola, a boarder. Émile did not mix well. “My years in school were years of tears,” says the hero of his fiercely autobiographical first novel, La Confession de Claude (1865). “I had in me the pride of loving natures. I was unloved because I was unknown and I refused to make myself known.” Émile did not speak the language. He spoke with a lisp and a Parisian accent; his name sounded foreign; he was fatherless (Zola père died of pleurisy when Émile was six); his mother and grandmother came to visit him every day, in a parlor reserved for the purpose. In the bear pit of the boarders, Zola was a mama’s boy. He could not pass for Provençal. He did not care. The insult was cordially returned: they called him le Franciot (Frenchy). Among the bourgeois Aixois, Zola was different. They were fat, he was thin. Worse, he was poor. His early writing fairly pulsates with contempt for the good-for-nothing bourgeois. The last lines of the novels are often revealing. The last line of Le Ventre de Paris (1873) is the Cézanne character’s parting shot—one of the real Cézanne’s favorite expressions—a muttered imprecation against the plump of the world: “What bastards respectable people are!”

Zola craved renown and respectability. At the Collège Bourbon, he was deprived of both. He was a boursier, a scholarship boy, living on charity. “Beggar!” the other boys taunted him. “Parasite!” Sometimes they beat him up. Sometimes they refused to speak to him altogether. “For the smallest thing, he was put in quarantine,” Cézanne remembered. “And really our friendship stemmed from that . . . from a thrashing I got from everyone in the playground, big and small, because I took no notice, I defied the ban, I couldn’t help talking to him anyway . . . A decent sort. The next day, he brought me a big basket of apples.”

Recounting this to the young Joachim Gasquet, the son of Cézanne’s friend Henri Gasquet, some forty years later, he added with a sly wink, “Cézanne’s apples, see, they go back a long way.” Apples were not only Cézanne’s capital subject, the subject he succeeded in knowing fully, “all round,” as D. H. Lawrence aptly said; they were freighted with meaning and complex emotion.

In Zola’s novel Madeleine Ferat (1868), this story of origins (minus the apples) becomes the tale of Jacques and Guillaume at a local collège in Véteuil. The family backgrounds are transposed, and the character sketches jumbled, but the thrust is clear. Guillaume is christened “Bastard” and persecuted by the other boys. He is tearful and wretched, but soon enough he finds his savior.

Guillaume, however, had one friend at school. As he was about to start his second year, a new pupil entered the same class. He was a big, strong, sturdy boy, who was two or three years older. His name was Jacques Berthier. An orphan, having only an uncle, a lawyer in Véteuil, he had come to the school in that town to complete the humanities course he had begun in Paris . . . On the very day he arrived, he noticed a big rascally boy bullying Guillaume. He raced over and made the boy understand that he would have to reckon with him if he tormented the others like that. Then he took the arm of the persecuted one and walked with him throughout the break, to the outrage of the other boys who -couldn’t understand how the Parisian could choose a friend like him . . . Guillaume . . . developed an ardent friendship for his protector. He loved him as one loves a first mistress, with absolute loyalty and blind devotion . . . Jacques accepted in good part the adoration of his protégé. He loved to show off his strength and be praised. Besides he was overwhelmed by the fond caresses of this character, puny and proud, who crushed the others with his scorn. During the two years they spent at the school, they were inseparable.

“The Inseparables” became their call sign and caste mark. Like the Musketeers, they were three. Cézanne and Zola were joined by Baptistin Baille, later a distinguished scientist, professor of optics and acoustics at the School of Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris, an institution he helped to found. Young Baille was a bright spark, and good company. He played host to their schoolboy escapades. The Bailles lived in a large house on the Cours Sextius, near the baths. A big room on the third floor served as the Inseparables’ den, laboratory, and workshop. Here they ate the grapes that hung from the ceiling; they risked their lives (so they liked to think) brewing up strange concoctions in chemical retorts; they composed three-act plays. At school, if Zola’s fictionalized reminiscence is to be trusted, they were not always little angels. They stole the shoes of Mimi-la-Mort, otherwise known as the Skeleton Day Boy, a spindly youth who used to keep the others supplied with snuff, and burned them in the stove. They stole matches from the chapel to smoke dried chestnut leaves in their homemade pipes. They marched round the pond in a cortège, singing dirges, with sawed-off benches from the playground, pretending they were corpses come to life, and Baille fell in as he tried to fill his cap with water. The young scamp Cézanne seems to have reveled in all this. One day he had the bright idea of roasting some Maybugs in the bottom of his desk, to see if they were good to eat, as people said. The smoke escaping from the desk was so thick and acrid that the supervisor grabbed a jug of water, thinking there was a fire.

These japes must have been welcome distraction. Life at the Collège Bourbon was not an unalloyed pleasure. There was no heating. In winter, the interminable recitations began in clouds of steam. The ground-floor études, or study rooms, were depressing places: airless, humid, dimly lit, with the damp running down the walls. The pond where the boys learned to swim was covered in slime. School uniform was a trial: blue woolen tunic with red border and gold palms on the collar; matching blue trousers; blue kepi. School meals were so bad that there were occasional riots. Zola, who liked his food, remembered horrible dishes, “among others, a strange codfish stew that poisoned the mold . . . We made up for it with bread, we stuffed crusts in our pocket and ate them in class or in the playground. For the six years I was there, I was hungry.”


Excerpted from Cezanne by Alex Danchev Copyright © 2012 by Alex Danchev. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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