In 1900 Maurice Denis painted a large canvas titled Hommage à Cézanne, which shows the esteemed master next to one of his paintings and surrounded by a crowd of admiring younger artists. The scene is set in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, in which Cézanne had attained instant celebrity through a in style than the painting by Cézanne that it depicts, which is marked by certain stylistic eccentricities that divided the Parisian art world into two camps–those who found his work crazily inept, and those who found it stunningly original. Cézanne’s Nature Morte au Compotier is a still life featuring a fruit dish–a compotier–with a circular lip. The lip does not look the way a circular form would appear in normal perspective. Cézanne shows it instead as a kind of compressed, awkward ellipse. And Denis, in picturing a painting by an artist other than himself, needed to show it the way it really looked. So his painting had to be academically impeccable. It was crucial that he demonstrate that he was accurately depicting a painting that was awkward and “wrong.” It was precisely because of the compotier‘s eccentricity that the important and advanced artists in Hommage à Cézanne were showing their respect. Denis’s painting shows why Cézanne, in his advanced years, had become the hottest artist in Paris.

Not everyone who first saw Denis’s tribute to Cézanne would have understood why the artists–Bonnard, Vuillard, Redon and others, including Denis himself–found Cézanne someone to admire. In the early phases of Modernism, viewers were hard-pressed to decide whether paintings that departed from accepted academic standards were innovative or simply incompetent. Were the artists in Denis’s painting sincere in their praise of Cézanne, or were they secretly mocking him? (Think of the ambiguity of a famous dinner party, a few years later, that Picasso and his pals threw for Henri Rousseau, the great primitivist.) But even if one were prepared to accept Cézanne’s seeming idiosyncrasies as innovative, the question remained of why his style was admired. It is the great merit of this fascinating book that it explains what the figures in Denis’s painting, including the dealer Ambroise Vollard himself, appreciated Cézanne for. Their reasons, it turns out, were strikingly different from our own. In her deeply researched and utterly convincing study Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, Nina M. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that what gave Cézanne’s work its great éclat was connected with the prevailing politics of taste. Cézanne and his work were believed to embody values and virtues antithetical to those for which Paris stood. He was believed to be, borrowing a title from Louis Aragon, Un paysan à Paris–a defiantly regionalist artist. The Cézanne portrayed in her book is almost the antithesis of the Cézanne upon whom the whole spirit and logic of Modernist painting was erected:

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, symbolist critics in the capital had already begun setting the foundation of…a portrait of Cézanne as barbaric, naïve, unsophisticated, and “primitive,” in a word, as the opposite of everything civilized and Parisian. His paintings were exalted for their naïveté, simplicity, severity, and lack of naturalism (such as realistic rendering of proportions, perspective, or color).

The notorious lip of the compotier would have been a case in point.

Like Gauguin, the author writes, Cézanne was “possessed of an ambiguous identity–part modern master, part primitive eccentric, insider and outsider all in one, known to some but a mystery to most–his persona as much as his works were surrounded by an aura of outlandishness.” In France at the time, as indeed today, there were deep tensions between Paris and the provinces, many of whose inhabitants resented the prevailing policy of cultural centralization, which treated Paris as the luminous capital and everyplace else as more or less the sticks. Thus, when the Universal Exposition of 1900 was conceived as a showcase for France’s industrial and cultural achievements, the decision to hold it in Paris wounded provincial pride. “Paris absorbs everything, Paris confiscates everything,” an editorialist complained. As Athanassoglou-Kallmyer observes, “The times were well primed for the promotion of a regional artist in the capital. It was primarily because Vollard saw Cézanne in these terms that he gave him the exhibition that made both their reputations. “Vollard sensed the timeliness and advantage of a show that would bring a rustic artist from the provinces into the orbit of the capital while regionalist debate over the Universal Exposition raged.”

The critical response to Cézanne’s 1895 exhibition is an object lesson in the optics of art appreciation: the marked eccentricities, epitomized by the lip of the compotier, were seen as evidence of Cézanne’s Provençal authenticity.

The singularly overlapping vocabulary of the critics generates a portrait of Cézanne as a genuine cultural outsider, unpolished and savage (“fruste et sauvage”); suspicious, restless, and self-taught (“méfiant,” “inquiet,” “autodidacte”); naïve and ignorant (“naïf et ignorant tout”); conscientious, simple, honest, and clumsy (“conscientieux, simple, franc mais lourd”). His paintings were described as the products of a peasant (“production paysanne”) characterized by “roughness,” “rusticity,” “awkwardness” (“gaucherie”), coarsely brushed surfaces, and “robust” colors.

To realize that this was the language of critical praise opens a window into the temper of the Parisian art world of 1895, part of which saw Cézanne in much the same way that a corresponding segment of the New York art world nearly a century later viewed the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Cézanne’s peasant authenticity was even interpreted as a sign of virility–his apparently rude and coarse paintings were those of a “real man,” as against the effeminacy of academic art!

Needless to say, these are very different reasons for admiring Cézanne’s painting than we are given today, when we see his work under the influence of the modernisms for which it is almost certainly responsible. “He is the father of us all,” Picasso was to say, early and often. But the praise certainly corresponded to an aspect of Cézanne’s personality. Cézanne spoke with a heavy Provençal accent, and probably flaunted his provincial identity in his manners, values and attitudes, notwithstanding the fact that, whatever his affectations and regional loyalties, he was an exceedingly sophisticated and cultivated man, whose correspondence is filled with Latin phrases and classical allusions. As his late letters show, he was considerably closer to the kind of artist that we now take him to have been, though it is of the greatest value to perceive him in the otherness of his own times, when it was impossible to see his art within the framework of a revolution in artistic understanding that had not yet been grasped. Cézanne’s childhood friend Émile Zola saw him as an aborted genius, and based the central character of his 1886 novel L’Oeuvre on Cézanne, whom he depicts as a madman and a failure, who finally takes his own life. There really was no way, even for his most ardent and devoted admirers, to understand his work other than as that of a gifted bumpkin.

Prizing Cézanne as an authentic specimen of Provençal culture was part of a larger movement of cultural criticism to which, undoubtedly, we owe one important aspect of Modernism in art. It is impossible to downplay the degree to which the perception of Jackson Pollock as a redneck contributed to his breakthrough. The European avant-garde was united in its view that the West was washed up, and that art needed to be refreshed by an inflow from other traditions. Gauguin found inspiration in Breton folk art before he embarked for the South Seas. Van Gogh left Paris for Arles to become the Hokusai of French painting. Cézanne did not have to go native–he was the real thing. And the upswelling of regionalism inflected his deviation from academic norms with an aura of delicious rusticity.

There is little doubt that setting Cézanne in his culture explains a great deal about his work. I learned many surprising and illuminating things about him from Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s scholarly investigations. I had, for example, always been puzzled by Cézanne’s Three Skulls of 1898-1900 in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was intoxicating to observe how the artist painted the skulls in the same way that he painted his celebrated apples, marking the planes with those wonderful and unmistakable brush strokes. But why skulls? And why three? No explanation would be needed had Cézanne painted three apples on a table. An artist might happen to have a single human skull in his studio, as a prop. But three of them?

As it turns out, the three skulls derive from an archeological display. One of Cézanne’s closest Provençal friends was a world-class scientist, Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a geologist and paleontologist who discovered the remains of an entire Neolithic culture beneath the soil of Provence. For Cézanne it was irresistible to see in the skulls Marion excavated the predecessors of Provençals. Cézanne’s painting of skulls was thus more than an exercise in facture and more than a modern vanitas: It was a celebration of his local world.

Before reading this study, I had always found Cézanne’s bathers difficult to explain. So it was truly illuminating to discover their Arcadian origins: Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that Cézanne was a passionate reader of Virgil from his youth, and that the bathers embody the pastoral reality underneath the encroaching industrialization of Provence, which Cézanne found revolting. As he wrote his goddaughter in 1902: “Unfortunately, what we call progress is nothing but the invasion of bipeds who do not rest until they have transformed everything into hideous quais with gas lamps–and, what is still worse–with electric illumination. What times we live in!”

The book is rich in such insights. The problem is that nearly all of them concern Cézanne’s choice of motifs, rather than his manner of depiction. Nothing in Cézanne’s culture explains the lip of the compotier, or the brush strokes, or the astonishing space, or the way forms tilt toward the viewer. The explanations that Cézanne’s enthusiasts gave for his distinctive art were wrong. What can be said is this: The factors that made Cézanne a celebrity made him a figure of great interest to young painters, who visited and wrote the master, and who discovered that the reasons for his greatness had to be sought elsewhere. “I think the young painters much more intelligent than the others,” he wrote his son in 1906, the year of his death. To Emile Bernard, he famously wrote, “See in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” To a German collector, he said, “I try to render perspective solely by means of color.” And he pointed to patches of color that were only patches of color, without as yet conveying distance.

This is not the discourse of the Provençal chauvinist. This is the discourse of the father of modern art. Color as form, reality as geometry–hommage à Cézanne!