Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”

When I was young, I had a set of picture books called Smart About Art. The series had a book about Renoir, Degas, Monet, and Mattisse, which are now some of my favorite artists. Since then, I have always loved impressionist painters. Now I know Mattisse is a part of the post-impressionism era and within the fauvism tradition, but he is in the book set, so I include him in this love. 

My family would travel to Chicago fairly often and we would always visit the Art Institute. For one of my birthdays in high school, I took my friends to the city and we spent roughly five hours in the museum. I don’t know if they all liked it, but it was my birthday. I spent most of that time slowly walking through the impressionist wing with one other friend. We would sit and get lost in the light and color. 

I took my fiancé to the Art Institute of Chicago for my first birthday as a couple. He said that he loved seeing it through my eyes because I lit up with every room, and that I would pose like every statue I came across that piqued my interest. I would ask him to read me the signs. He enjoyed it when he came across a piece of information that I hadn’t heard before. He said I knew a lot, which somewhat surprises me. I know I love art and take pride in my taste, but I never formally studied art history. I suppose I can name a lot of artists. 

Besides the artists from my childhood books, I can distinguish artists seemingly at random like pebbles I’ve picked up along the beach. I roughly remember where some of the stones come from, which era they were situated in, describe their most famous works, and on occasion tell you a detail I’ve picked up about their life. But mostly, I can just point at the rock on my shelf and tell another person who painted it. “That’s Lautrec because he paints a lot of grotesque faces.” “That’s a Lichtenstein because a woman is crying with dots.” “That’s an O’Keefe because it’s in the desert and vaguely looks like a vulva.” “That’s a Hopper because everyone is sad and alone.” “That’s Gaugin because he’s a piece of shit racist for painting those women green.” 

I also have some random un-named pebbles in my collection like the painting with the brilliant orange circle over a tree landscape, or the woman lying in the grass looking at a run down house, or the man staring off the roof of a building. I just point to these and say, “This one. I don’t know anything about it. But I like this one a lot.”

When tasked to look up what happened on October 22nd, I skipped past the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw that Cezanne died 117 years ago today. I know Cezanne too. To be fair, whenever I see a still life that isn’t quite impressionism but isn’t quite anything else, I always guess Cezanne. I’m right about 70% of the time. 

I was surprised when I started researching for this essay that he was the “artist’s artist” as the Art Institute of Chicago called him in an article announcing an exhibit of his work. By Monet himself he was called “the greatest of us all.” 

I would like to say that I get it, but I don’t. To be called the greatest of all of the titans of the painting world of impressionism and post-impressionism is the highest bar I could possibly think of.

From that same article I learned that Monet, Renoir, and some person that did not make the cut for my childhood books—but then again, neither did the Cuban Missile Crisis—encouraged the art collector to put on a show of a comprehensive look into Cezanne’s work up until then in 1895. The author of the article describes the show as having a profound effect on the painters who attended, calling it “incredibly raw.” It even left the great painter Pissaro (who was also not in my books) to say that those who did not get Cezanne “have shown by their errors that their sensibilities are defective,” and that while these critics “properly point out the faults we all see, which leap to the eye, but the charm—that they do not see.” 

There was also an art show a year after his death to commemorate his work where the next generation of post impressionist painters fell in love with the same charm that the impressionists saw before them. Among the crowd of names I don’t recognize, Matisse was one of the artists at this show who went on to purchase some of Cezanne’s paintings and advocated for the brilliance of his work. 

I now think I will linger longer at his paintings in a museum. This is not just because it would bruise my prize to be an art lover with defective sensibilities, but because I could picture myself at those shows. The next time I look at a work by Cezanne, I will imagine the great artists walking around his exhibit, gasping at the blues and yellows used to create a white tablecloth, the intentionally skewed proportions, the roundness of an apple made not with shadow but with color. I can imagine Monet and Mattise standing beside me, looking at the same painting with tears in their eyes as they contemplate what it would be like to paint like this. And suddenly I am Monet,  and I am Mattise. I wonder what it would be like to be as great as Cezanne, to achieve so much, as I weep at the glory of a painter less known than me.

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