PARIS -- For the most intelligent and spiritual people in the world -- as the French were pleased to describe themselves -- the Impressionists were a joke. Not only did these painters make no effort to draw carefully, they did not "finish" their canvases.
Their paintings told no stories, evoked no scenes from the past and taught no moral lesson. And Paul Cezanne, loosely classed among the Impressionists, was an especially difficult case. His work made a different sort of break with painterly tradition. First shown in 1863, his canvases were ridiculed.
The art critic of Le Figaro, the newspaper that still comforts the smug of Paris, told his readers that Cezanne's work aroused "general hilarity."
Cezanne has not changed. But the public has.
That helps explain the turnout for a Cezanne retrospective now at the Grand Palais, an exhibit that includes 109 oil paintings, 42 watercolors and 26 drawings. It is attracting almost 6,000 people a day, a figure that places the exhibit among the 10 or so most popular in the city's history.
Francoise Cachin, director of French museums, has been surprised by the turnout.
"Cezanne was a rough, austere painter in the early years and still difficult in his mature work," she says. "He remains mysterious and cannot be explained by the easy formulas applied to many other painters."
The press has seized on the retrospective as a marvelous project, describing it in remarkably uniform terms. Le Figaro, always on the side of established order, praised Cezanne as "the father of modern painting."
But then so did L'Humanite, the Communist Party paper, and La Croix, the Catholic publication. France-Soir, the afternoon paper read by chauffeurs and concierges, called Cezanne "the prophet of modern art," which was no different from the conclusion of the intellectual weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
Even the financial press has warmed to the paintings: Cezanne prices have never been higher, Les Echos reported, and there was the tidbit that the exhibit cost $4.3 million to assemble, including $1.5 million for insurance.
These admirers are, of course, the descendants of the class that a century ago was offended by Cezanne and the Impressionists.
On the rare occasion when the canvases of the new painters were displayed at an official salon or one of its offshoots, it was not unusual for crowds of well-dressed men and women of the world to gather before them and laugh.
The best-known target of this was Edouard Manet's "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe." Men fetched their mistresses from across town to ridicule it. Cabinet ministers joined the loud merriment. Cezanne had pictures at that same 1863 exhibition.
One of the first Impressionists to break out of the ghetto was Claude Monet. He was the most accessible, after all, an artist summed up by a contemporary as just "an eye, but what an eye!"
For Monet, painting was a breeze: "I simply open my windows on nature and paint, the same as birds sing."
His friend Cezanne found that vocation -- he called it a "priesthood" -- a relentless struggle. He worked much more slowly, holding himself to a hard standard before which he sometimes appeared uncertain.
Not many of his works are signed and elements of some are left blank, supposedly because he could not decide how to go on. He destroyed paintings of his that displeased him.
By 1903, when Cezanne was 63 years old and had finished the main body of his work, he noted, with generous understatement, "I have made some progress." But, he added, "Why so late and why so painfully?"
Although the public did not bestow its favor upon him, his fellow artists did. He was a painter's painter.
Julien Tanguy, who sold paints and canvas from his shop in the Rue Clauzel, just below Montmartre, accepted pictures from Cezanne against future payment for supplies. At one point Tanguy had the biggest collection of Cezanne works outside Cezanne's own, a fact that made the shop a pole of attraction for Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard, Georges Seurat and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
They would show up on the Rue Clauzel and ask to see Cezannes, to study them, a request Tanguy was happy to honor. "Poor Cezanne," he once said, "he is never satisfied with what he does. He always leaves off before he finishes. The smallest thing costs him a lot of effort. Nothing is left to chance."
Vincent van Gogh, who lived six blocks away, was a close friend of Tanguy's and had a similar arrangement: paintings as credit for supplies. But there is no evidence that Van Gogh shared the others' esteem for Cezanne.
The two artists met only once, it appears, when Van Gogh was having lunch in Tanguy's back room. Van Gogh brought out some of his own work, still lifes and portraits, and Cezanne
remarked, "In all honesty, yours is the painting of a madman!"
After Cezanne's death in 1906, his influence grew, above all in the world of artists. Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and a whole generation of painters made him a point of reference. Pablo Picasso declared, "Cezanne was my one and only master."
The critics began to catch on, and the idea took hold that Cezanne was a very important painter after all: the last of the old masters, in a sense, and the first of the moderns. From a merely respectable notion it became conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is a powerful force.
There is no longer a fixed canon imposed on art. So the press and fashion can propel a certain public so that it arrives at a gallery or museum in an appropriate state of devotion. At the Grand Palais, speech is conducted in whispers. Men fold their arms on their chests a lot.
But the best intentions can sometimes yield to confusion. It is one thing to see a few Cezanne canvases at an ordinary museum, mixed in with hundreds of other painters; the Cezannes you cannot forget are the powerfully shimmering still lifes. But it is quite another to see enough of his work collected to form a critical mass. There is a dark side to the man, a nervous violence that sometimes comes into evidence, especially in his early work.
"There's even a bishop!" exclaims a woman seeing for the first time "The Eternal Feminine," a small painting of a naked woman on a sort of throne-bed, surrounded by all sorts of men.
"Look at that brush work," says a middle-aged man to his companion, both looking at a still life with a luminous blue vase. "Exquisite."
"It is true, that as far as his portraits are concerned, there are few well-defined lines," observes a wife to her husband, with a note of lament.
Before a landscape, a professor complains, "The blues are still too blue. The green is still too garish."
But then relief and recognition burst into the open when a fine-looking woman, a grandmother perhaps, in a Chanel suit and with not a gram too much gold on her hands and wrists, comes upon a cheerful painting full of orange and red and white, apples on a cloth of linen.
"Look, Elisabeth! Wasn't that one in Le Figaro?"