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Hail Cézanne

by John Elderfield, 19 December 2017

Self-portrait with bowler hat, 1885–6 by Paul Cézanne
Self-portrait with bowler hat, 1885–6 by Paul Cézanne

Portraits by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) have appeared in virtually all retrospective surveys of his work, beginning with the first such exhibition at the Paris Salon d’Automne in the year after his death, an exhibition that was decisively influential on artists who saw it, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Nonetheless, surprising though it may seem, the exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, London is the only exhibition exclusively devoted to Cézanne’s portraits since 1910, when Ambroise Vollard, who had been the artist’s dealer, showed in his Paris gallery twenty-four ‘Figures de Cézanne’.

How is this possible? Over a working life of some 45 years, Cézanne made almost 1,000 paintings, of which around 160 are portraits. This is far fewer than his 320 landscapes, but not many fewer than his 190 still-lifes; and more than either his 130 figure compositions or his 80 paintings of bathers. So why has it taken so long for his portraits to be given the attention they deserve?

The answer, in short, is that Cézanne’s reputation, as it developed in the early decades of the twentieth century, was as someone who had transformed Impressionism into a newly objective, classical art that paved the way for modernist abstraction. This interpretation meant that more attention was paid to style than to subject matter, and, therefore, that Cézanne’s paintings of mute objects and natural scenes – still lifes and landscapes – were thought to be more central to his achievement than his paintings of actual, individual people. His paintings of bathers had to wait until 1989 to get their due (with a great exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, Basel), but their subjects are generic figures, which do not provoke the same questions that the portraits do: ‘Who are these people, and why did Cézanne paint them?’ as well as ‘Why did he paint them in the way that he did?’

In fact, many early critics played down the function of these portraits as records of the appearance of distinct individuals, treating them as no different to his still-life paintings. True, Vollard reported that, when he began fidgeting while sitting for his portrait, Cézanne said to him, ‘You wretch! You’ve spoiled the pose. Do I have to tell you again you must sit still like an apple? Does an apple move?’ But that did not mean that he was treating his dealer as if he were a piece of fruit. What now seems so extraordinary about such portraits is how their pictorial inventiveness and their vivid depiction of human presence are mutually reinforcing. To demonstrate that is one of the most important aims of the present exhibition.

Another important aim is to show how Cézanne not only made individual portraits, but often pairs and small series of portraits of the same figure. We see this already in his earliest, dark and heavily painted portraits of the 1860s, notably in the probably nine portraits of his maternal uncle, Dominique Aubert, painted with a palette knife. Four of these are in the exhibition, along with a famous, large, ambitious portrait of Cézanne’s father, and other deliberately provocative works that were rejected by the official Paris Salon.

1 Portrait of uncle Dominique in profile, 1866. 2 Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap, 1866. Both by Paul Cézanne.

In 1872 Cézanne began working alongside the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, learning how to record effects of light and shade methodically on landscape, and by mid-decade he was transferring his lessons to portraiture. But whereas a true Impressionist would do what the poet Stéphane Mallarmé later recommended – ‘paint not the thing, but the effect it produces’ – Cézanne was already definitively a painter of things. In the case of a portrait, to paint an effect would be to risk painting something transient, be it a passing expression in the sitter or a momentary interpretation of the sitter; and he was now seeking to capture the vivid, raw, permanent presence of the thing seen.

In the second half of the 1870s, notably in an 1877 portrait of Hortense Fiquet, who would become Madame Cézanne a decade later, he broke through, beyond Impressionism, to something new – new to portraiture as such, not only to his portraits. He began recreating the materiality of his early monochrome palette-knife portraits by constructing areas of heightened, prismatic colour that shape the human presence. By the beginning of the next decade, he was making both volume and its surrounding space sculptural, composing severe self-portraits from so-called ‘constructive brushstrokes’ – similar, large patches of paint applied in a parallel, usually diagonal direction, running more or less continuously across figure and ground.

1 Madame Cézanne in a red dress, 1888-90,. 2 Madame Cézanne in a red armchair, c.1877,. Both by Paul Cézanne.

What happened next was largely driven by Cézanne’s painting of 17 portraits of Hortense in a roughly five-year period that began around the time of their marriage, in spring 1886 (nine are in the exhibition). These represent the most condensed, continuous examination of the features of any one person that he ever made – and, in such a short period, of any single motif except Mont Sainte-Victoire. A first group of small portrait heads refutes the frequent claim that Cézanne painted inexpressive figures, but it is hard to particularise the emotions they convey. A second group is more explicit, Hortense seeming sullen and melancholic. The third, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, shows a very remote figure; the simplified oval of her head has the uncanny purity of a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi.

As the 1890s began, Cézanne and Hortense drifted apart; for subjects he turned instead to local people mainly in and around Aix-en-Provence, and, as his reputation grew in the second half of the decade, to art world figures in Paris. He admired how local country people had grown old without changing their ways, and was far less comfortable painting his urbane admirers in Paris. From the very start, he had refused to be pictorially ingratiating and liked painting people who didn’t expect it. In fact, he refused to paint what had long been thought to be necessary aims of portraiture: the depiction of ‘personality’, ‘character’, ‘likeness’ or ‘humanity’. Instead, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed of Cézanne’s portraits at the 1907 Salon d’Automne, it was their ‘limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity’ that lay at the heart of Cézanne’s portraiture. It was the element that so discomfited its early audiences, and one that continues to astonish us today.

1 Man in a blue smock, 1891-97,. 2 Self portrait, 1880-1,. Both by Paul Cézanne.

In his last years, the prematurely aged Cézanne rarely visited Paris (although he did welcome young painters and critics to his studio); his life became more and more like that of an eccentric, nineteenth-century rural landowner, tended by his housekeeper Madame Brémond and a gardener named Vallier. But he never stopped painting. On 15 October 1906 he collapsed while out in the rain for two hours painting a landscape, and was brought home in a laundry cart. Even then, he returned to his studio the next day to work on one of his portraits of Vallier, only to die a week or so later, at the age of sixty-seven, on 23 October. The following October, the memorial exhibition at the Salon d’Automne cemented his reputation.

Cézanne Portraits, curated by John Elderfield, was at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 26 October 2017 until 11 February 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by a book featuring 170 beautifully reproduced portraits, available at

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