In Maurice Denis's 1900 canvas "Homage to Cézanne," fellow artists gather around their idol's "Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples." Unlike Henri Fantin-Latour's 1870 tribute to Édouard Manet, "A Studio at Les Batignolles," in which the painter boldly presides, Cézanne is absent, represented only by the talismanic still life, which Paul Gauguin, its one-time owner, was said to carry with him to dinner. Denis's subject, who believed "the man should remain obscure," cannot have been disappointed. In "Cézanne: A Life," Alex Danchev's challenge is to illuminate an artist long overshadowed by his genius and his fraught relationship with the novelist Émile Zola. Having written the first comprehensive biography of Georges Braque—another hermetic innovator associated with a famous partnership—Mr. Danchev would seem well suited to the task.
By Alex Danchev
Pantheon, 488 pages, $40
Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, the "illegitimate, but recognized" son of an enterprising hatmaker-turned-banker, Louis-Auguste. The young Cézanne excelled at school, winning prizes in fifth grade for Latin translation and overall excellence (though only an honorable mention for painting). While scholarship informed both his life and art—the artist's letters are peppered with learned allusions and valedictions—his boyhood friendship with Émile Zola left the most lasting imprint.
Their roles were initially reversed—Cézanne was the more accomplished student, Zola the more promising draftsman—yet each soon adopted his later métier. Louis-Auguste had other plans, however, expecting Paul to make his own way by practicing law. His son was unenthusiastic and, after passing the preliminary examinations in 1859, gave up legal study for good the following year. Zola had by then resolved to become the "Balzac of the age," Cézanne its painterly equivalent. After some hesitation, Louis-Auguste indulged his son's wish, fixing an allowance for an "open-ended" stay in Paris and purchasing an exemption for 20-year-old Paul from the 1860 draft.
Though his experiences in the capital proved invaluable, Cézanne never settled there, spending most of his life in the countryside at Aix and elsewhere. (He remained dependent on Louis-Auguste until the latter's death in 1886, when Paul was 47; he once walked the 20 miles from Marseille to Aix at his father's summoning.) Nor did he fit into the city's artistic milieus. He was repeatedly rejected by the prestigious Parisian Salon, his paintings deemed irredeemably coarse. Although he participated in two Impressionist exhibitions and deeply admired Camille Pissarro—with whom he worked in several concentrated bursts from 1875 to 1881—Cézanne didn't fully adopt the movement's style or its emphasis on the immediate, favoring instead broad, flattened brushwork and solid, architectural forms.
Cézanne's family life was similarly irregular. He met his lifelong companion, Hortense Fiquet, in 1869 and had their only child, Paul, with her three years later, but they didn't marry until 1886. In the meantime, mistress and son were an open secret, kept only from Louis-Auguste, who, when he confronted Paul, received desperately brazen denials.
It is on the subject of "La Boule" (Hortense's unflattering nickname, playing on her stoutness) that Mr. Danchev breaks most radically with previous accounts, condemning the late Cézanne biographer John Rewald's "striking animus" toward the artist's wife and casting her instead as an efficient, long-suffering partner. While Rewald's depiction rests largely on anecdotal evidence—Cézanne's friends were nearly unanimous in their disapproval—Mr. Danchev's support appears even feebler: two letters in Hortense's hand, one to the wife of the artist's loyal collector, Victor Chocquet, the other, regarding minor administrative matters, to the painter Émile Bernard. The bland correspondence doesn't credibly undermine Rewald, nor does Mr. Danchev's admission that Hortense was prodigal and unsupportive of her husband's art.
By the late 1880s, on the strength of Louis-Auguste's generous legacy, Cézanne's living was assured. His style had reached maturity and soon he finally achieved modest renown, enjoying his first one-man show in 1895. Chocquet died around this time, but Cézanne's two greatest adherents had only just discovered him: Ambroise Vollard, the savvy modernist dealer who would handle two-thirds of Cézanne's recorded paintings over the course of his career; and margarine magnate Auguste Pellerin, whose estate boasted 92 of his works.
With success came increasing isolation, however. In the late 1880s, Cézanne abruptly broke with Zola. While the underlying cause is unclear—Mr. Danchev partially credits Zola's "thirst for respectability," "political windbaggery" and "shallow social commentary"—many have speculated that Zola's thinly disguised roman à clef, "L'Oeuvre," led to the rupture. Claude Lantier, Cézanne's fictional analogue, winds up an impotent failure, hanging himself in front of an unfinished canvas. Whatever the reason, the two didn't speak again before Zola's death in 1902. Pissarro died the next year, Cézanne himself in 1906. Few contemporaries lived to see the artist's landmark retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne.
Though Mr. Danchev is notably strong on Zola, "Cézanne" doesn't compare favorably with "Braque," which gave the measure of the man through engaging detail. These satisfying flourishes are fewer in "Cézanne," whether owing to uneven source material or the subject's disobliging seclusion. Indeed, Mr. Danchev seems more concerned with secondary references to the artist's influence on posterity, citing E.E. Cummings, Lucian Freud and Allen Ginsberg, among others. More troublingly, Mr. Danchev articulates Cézanne's independence from the Impressionist movement with exactly the same phrase as he did Braque's Cubist autonomy in 2005: "The 'ism' was too doctrinaire, too programmatic, too collective."
"If I were certain that my canvases would never enter the Louvre," Cézanne once declared, "I would stop painting." He needn't have worried. His works have become the pride of the French state; Aristide Maillol's "Monument to Cézanne" sits in the Tuileries, opposite the museum the artist rashly hoped his paintings might one day grace. Cézanne was admitted to the lucrative Salon but once; in 2011, the only privately held version of his "Card Players" reportedly traded for $250 million, making it the world's most expensive work of art. As the unknown but defiant Cézanne said in 1870: "He who laughs last, laughs longest."—Mr. Carter is an associate vice president and specialist in Impressionist and modern art at Christie's.