Paul Cezanne in Van Gogh Letters

I love painting and I love landscapes.  As I try to improve on my works I am guided by my initial love for the Impressionist movement and then by two of my favorite artists -- Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh.

 In Summary Art Principles from Paul Cezanne I presented Paul Cezanne's most important contributions to art theory as I tried to recall them from years of reading print and online resources.

Click to learn more about the principles of Paul Cezanne.  Available at the Kindle store. (August 2020 update

In a recent post about a landscape scene from our province I expressed my effort to consciously remember Cezanne and Van Gogh as I grope with my humble works.  I mentioned that I always wanted to work as fast and as boldly as Vincent Van Gogh while building disciplined and solid works as Paul Cezanne.  The end result is way, way below what I hoped for but I just take the work as it is, as part of the voyage to reach the expressed and imagined goal.

I thought that the goal could not be achieved considering the difference between Cezanne's balance and control versus Van Gogh's spontaneous, bright and bold exaggerations.

Below however, are excerpts from two of Van Vogh's letters expressing his thoughts on Cezanne in relation to his own works.  Van Gogh mentioned Cezanne in at least 13 of his letters.  The excerpts below were written to his brother Theo and artist friend Emile Bernard in the period when he was in Arles, in the same region as Aix-en-Provence where Cezanne also lived and painted.  These places are both in the south of France where artists are influenced by the region's bright and warm light.  Van Gogh lived the last 3 years of his life in the south of France before he spent the last 2 months in the north, eventually taking his own life there at Auver-sur-Oise.

Map shows location of Arles and Aix-en-Provence where Van Gogh and Cezanne, respectively worked.  Map from

Here are parts of Van Gogh's letter to his brother Theo:

The latest canvas absolutely kills all the others; it is only the still life with the coffeepots and cups and plates in blue and yellow that could stand the comparison with it. It must be because of the drawing.

I can't help recalling what I've seen of Cézanne's work, because - as in the harvest which we saw at Portier's - he has bought [brought?] out the harsh side of Provence so much.


Perhaps, perhaps, I am therefore on the right track and I am getting an eye for the countryside here.
We'll have to wait and see.

The countryside near Aix - where Cézanne works - is just the same as here, it is still the Crau. When I get back home with my canvas and I say to myself, Hullo, I've got old Cézanne's very tones, all I mean is that since Cézanne, just like Zola, is so at home in these parts and hence knows them so intimately, one must be making the same mental calculation to arrive at the same tones. It goes without saying that seen side by side they would go together, but not look alike. 
-- (letter to Theo dated 12 or 13 June 1888 via

Mountains in Provence.  Paul Cezanne. 1886-1890.  Cezanne's disctinctive brushwork and colors influenced artisits like Gauguin and Van Gogh's friend Emile Bernard.  Image from

Subject and location influence painting techniques and philosophies.  This is why I keep trying to paint landscapes of my own native Philippines, whether of the Cordillera Mountains or the lowlands of Bicol.  An artist may have techniques and goals ready in their minds  but once confronted by their subject, their philosophies adjust -- sometimes it is reinforced,  sometimes it accepts influences, sometimes it synthesizes, sometimes it rejects certain aspects, sometimes it connects, sometimes it deconstructs; but no matter what the artist's reaction there is always bound to be an effect.  The climate that is felt by the skin, the smell that is felt by the nose, the light that is perceived by the eyes, and the memories and stories that are associated with all of the above, all play within the artist's mind and heart and will eventually run through his brushes, whether consciously or otherwise.

A month later, Van Gogh wrote Emile Bernard:

I've just sent you another 9 sketches after painted studies. So you'll see subjects from the scenery that inspires old man Cézanne, because the Crau near Aix is almost the same as the countryside round Tarascon or the Crau here...

Knowing how keen you are on Cézanne, I thought you might like these sketches of Provence; not that a drawing of mine and one by Cézanne have much in common. No, indeed, any more than Monticelli and I! But I too love the countryside they have loved so much, and for the same reasons, the colour and the logical composition.
-- (letter to Emile Bernard dated 17 July 1888 one month after his letter to Theo quoted above.  Complete letter at

Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background.  Vincent Van Gogh.   June 1888.  Van Gogh had this painting in mind when he wrote to his brother Theo mentioned.  Image from

During this time Cezanne was still far from the art giant that he is now known.  He was still an artist ridiculed by the established art world, independently working on his art in his corner of Provence, admired only by a few artists who understood him.  Vincent too was also unknown during this time, even more unknown than Cezanne.  The difference was Cezanne had a comfortable inheritance that would allow his troubled mind some rest and security to pursue art for another 18 years while Van Gogh had to struggle 2 more years and depend on his brother for sustenance until would eventually take his own life in despair.

This was a period when little known and already famous but maligned artists (such as the Impressionists) were still struggling to develop their art and struggling for the public and established art world to accept them.

Why did Van Gogh refer to Cezanne in his letters?  Because he was acquainted with the art that Cezanne was developing and he knew that if he were to at least find encouragement by comparison in terms of Provencal landscapes, he knew that the person was Cezanne.  He also saw the beauty of Cezanne's "solid" works although he had a different way of interpreting that word.  

Another reason perhaps is because Cezanne was a native of Provence while Van Gogh was just a sojourner who found his artistic maturity in the place.  If I were Van Gogh I would probably also weigh myself and my progress in the light of the work and intimate knowledge of the region's great native observers such as Cezanne.

You may also want to check the blogsite which presents Van Gogh paintings beside photos of actual places like the one below:

I hope all these would give Van Gogh and Cezanne lovers the same excitement I felt as they find some connection between the two masters. 

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