The next blockbuster exhibition: Cézanne - A life in pictures

Although he never visited these shores, British collectors have prized the painter's works. To mark the centenary of his death, the National Gallery is to put them on show. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online

Reclusive and shy, the painter Paul Cézanne scarcely left his home country and never came to Britain.

But thanks to pioneer collectors such as the economist John Maynard Keynes and champions such as the critic Roger Fry, the UK has ended up with one of the world's most outstanding collections of his work.

Now 40 paintings, drawings and prints tracing the development of his art are to be brought together this autumn for a free exhibition at the National Gallery in London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the artist's death in 1906 aged 67. Key British works, including the gallery's famous painting Bathers, are being loaned to major exhibitions in the artist's home town of Aix-en-Provence in France and in Washington DC before returning for the London show on 4 October.

Anne Robbins, who will curate the National Gallery's show, said: "Cézanne was not a traveller and hardly ever went abroad. His work was hardly known here in his lifetime and only a handful of pictures by him were shown in Britain. But we think Britain is an obvious place to celebrate the centenary of his death. There was initial scepticism about his work but he has had considerable impact on collectors and on other artists.

"The UK has one of the greatest collections of Cézanne in the world, both in number - about 90 works - and in quality."

They will show about 40, including pieces from the National Museum of Wales, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the National Gallery of Scotland. "It will be a small but powerful and stunning retrospective of his work."

The exhibition traces Cézanne's development as an artist: his expressive works "painted as though with mud" of the 1860s including The Abduction; the Impressionist pictures of the 1970s where he experimented with a lighter colour palette in works including Pool at the Jas de Bouffan; his "synthetic" works of the 1880s and 1890s, such as the Card Players and the highly-resolved work from the later period of his life, including Still Life With Teapot.

The National Museum of Wales was a beneficiary of the giant art collection amassed by Gwendoline Davies, a Welsh heiress, and her sister, Margaret, who were among the earliest collectors of Cézanne.

Another collector was Samuel Courtauld, a member of the wealthy textile family, who established one of the world's most distinguished collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art which now forms part of the core collection of the Courtauld Institute, London.

Yet the reaction of the establishment to his work was dismissive for many years. When Gwendoline Davies offered to lend Mountains in Provence, now one of his most famous works, to the National Gallery in London it was initially refused because of space. After 18 months of debate the loan was accepted in 1922.

In Britain, it was not until 1925 that Cézanne was posthumously granted his first solo exhibition. During his lifetime, his talent was recognised by few; the painter Odilon Redon wrote in 1901 about Cézanne's work gaining recognition: "Everything changes, you see ... in sum, everything that's beautiful ultimately makes a place for itself."

But Cézanne's work continued to be seen as rather "progressive" at least until the Second World War. And as late as 1964 The Times poured scorn on the National Gallery for purchasing Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), which is now a work of world renown, for £500,000 - admittedly, an enormous price for the time. The newspaper said: "It is almost laughable, if it was not serious, that such a clumsy huddle of filleted females is dumped on a wondering public at such a record price."

But, few such criticisms are likely to be levelled today. Mrs Robbins said: "I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to bring together such important works and I believe the show will be as successful as it will be beautiful." It will run until 7 January 2007.

The London show will be small, however, compared with commemorations in France, where the anniversary of Cézanne's death is being treated so seriously that a committee of the great and good has designated it as of national importance.

Cézanne gained inspiration from the Aix-en-Provence. He said the area "conceals treasures which have not yet found the artist capable of expressing the riches to be discovered here". One of those treasures was the Sainte-Victoire mountain, a constant source of fascination to the artist. He painted the 1,000 metre mountain for the first time in 1870, and then again in 1885-86. Through his work, he attempted to convey a sense of light and depth through colour alone.

In parallel with the paintings returning, albeit briefly, to the place of their creation, Cézanne's last studio at Les Lauves and Jas de Bouffan, the 17th-century country house his father bought in 1859, will be opened for the first time to the public.

The Bibemus stone quarries at the foot of Mount Saint-Victoire, where the artist painted the series of landscapes, will also be opened.

Jacob Mayne, from the Musée Granet in Aix, said that in Cézanne's lifetime he had offered all his works and the contents of his studio to the town, which had rudely rejected them. "Aix has been rather regretting it ever since," he said.

The Cézanne in Provence exhibition has opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and has been attracting about 5,000 visitors a day.