This might be a book of Paul Cézanne’s letters, but the various self-portraits and photographs of the painter dropped into the text are no less revealing than his writings. Take, for instance, the photograph of him setting out to paint in the landscape near Auvers, around 1874. He stands mid-stride, resting on his stick, with painting box and folded easel on his back. Those gimlet eyes, beneath his straw hat, and the thick beard that obscures the lower part of his face immediately convey character and purpose. This is no Sunday painter but a man ferociously committed to the task in hand. ‘Pictor semper virens’, he added after his name in a letter to Marius Roux, the author of The Substance and the Shadow, a novel in which a character based on Cézanne ends his days a ruined man. The professional signature acted as a riposte: unlike his fictional alter ego he, the pictor (‘painter’), was semper virens (‘evergreen’) – in other words, vigorously alive.
Cézanne is a complex figure of towering importance in the history of art. As a person, he has, until now, been difficult to comprehend – as Lawrence Gowing once said, his writings deserve the close scrutiny and analysis normally reserved for classic texts. Those who have turned to the first