In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe (2014)

Roe’s previous book – The Private Lives of the Impressionists  (2006) – gives a chatty, anecdotal overview of the Impressionists’ lives and loves (and poverty, lots of poverty) blended with lashings of pop social history, ending with the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

This one skips 14 years (neatly avoiding the complex decade of the 1890s when Symbolism and Art Nouveau became the new thing). Instead Roe starts with the dawn of the new century in 1900, and launches her account with the enormous Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from April to November, built and designed in the dominant Art Nouveau style to house a vast array of innovative machines, inventions and architecture.

The decadence and darkness of the fin-de-siecle didn’t disappear immediately, but there was a widespread sense of hope and optimism, that the new century was going to bring marvellous advances in science and medicine and society and, accompanying this optimism, there was in the arts a palpable thirst for something new, for the next big thing.

A group biography

The book is mostly about the artists, specifically Picasso and Matisse, their lovers and wives and children and mistresses, their struggles simply to survive, to find somewhere to live, and their relationships with the growing number of Parisian collectors and dealers.

The book details the slow-burning rivalry between Matisse and his young rival, explaining how and why it began and grew (for example when the two artists exchanged paintings, Picasso hung the work Matisse gave him on the wall and encouraged his mates to use it as a dartboard).

Around them cluster other important artists – Derain, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Braque – each given their own potted biographies, who then weave in and out of the plot – for example, she devotes some pages to le douanier Rousseau, the naive painter of jungle scenes, who Picasso organises an elaborate celebration dinner for.

Several characters I found it hard to care about. Roe has a particular fondness for the master couturier Paul Poiret. I have a blind spot for fashion so I didn’t really care that among his customers was Margot Asquith, the fashionable wife of the British Prime Minister, who apparently wore violet satin knickers, or that his design for skirts slashed open to the knee caused the sensitive to faint and the outraged to write letters to the press. After a while I skimmed through these chapters.

Similarly, Gertrude Stein was an important early collector and supporter of both Matisse and Picasso, and it’s certainly interesting to read about her own avant-garde experiments with a kind of radically decentred prose as a verbal equivalent to what the painters were doing with point-of-view.

But the intricacies of her relationship with fellow lesbian Alice B. Toklas, let alone other lovers and friends called Nancy and Alice, and how they all corresponded with Fernande, Picasso’s lover and muse, descended – for me – into pointless tittle-tattle, and I skipped these parts too.

Social history

Roe’s social history is patchy. The disastrous Dreyfus Affair which dragged on from 1894 to 1906 and bitterly divided France into pro- and anti-Dreyfus camps, is not mentioned and isn’t in the index.

On the other hand, she has a good couple of pages (162-163) about the political chaos of 1906, specifically the record number of strikes and the ubiquity of anarchist agitation. Characteristically, this is mentioned mainly in order to introduce us to a person, namely the thin, witty journalist and art critic Félix Fénéon, who had coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ to describe the Divisionist paintings of George Seurat and Paul Signac.

Similarly, the rise of cinema is an interesting thread running through the book, from the very first film made in 1896 to the fact that by 1902 ten-minute movies with elaborate special effects, dialogue captions and so on were being shown in newly created cinemas. Indeed, some French newspaper dubbed 1907 ‘the year of the cinema’ (p.192). But again, Roe’s interest is in relating it to the location of her title, to the fleapits and even open waste ground, where films were projected in run-down slummy Montmartre.

By introducing the notion of ‘cuts’, movies invented the method of showing the same scene from multiple points of view – wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, different angles. It’s not difficult to make links between these new ways of seeing and Cubism, which also presents multiple points of view of the same object.

More interesting to me was the detail that cinemas were so dirt cheap – entry often only a few centimes – that they quickly became the preferred venue of entertainment for the really poor, and that this change prompted the cabarets and vaudeville theatres to go up-market, charging more for entry, cleaning themselves up, becoming more ‘respectable’. That was an interesting insight into social history.

Late in the book we are given a brief history of manned flight (the Wright brothers made the first manned flight in 1903) because Picasso and Braque visited the new aerodrome at Issy les Moulineaux to watch the earliest French airplanes. Alongside Futurists hymning the car (‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace‘, as the Futurist Manifesto put it), the rapid evolution of cinema and the introduction of the telephone, Cubism was part of the new technological excitement of the times.

And – it’s difficult to sum up in a paragraph – but the book is drenched in the mechanics and economics of selling pictures. As a professional artist, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Competition was fierce because it was competition to get money to pay rent, get studio space, to buy food.

The noughties saw the further rise and complexification of the networks of collectors and dealers who bought and sold modern art, and we learn almost as much of their biographies, backgrounds, motives for collecting, and economic ups and downs, as we do about the painters.

Ambroise Vollard in particular emerges as a predatory buyer, repeatedly swooping on the studios of Picasso, Derain or Vlaminck and buying everything in sight – not once but several times we are told that passers-by gawped in wonder as Vollard loaded a horse-drawn cab to overflowing with colourful canvases and then trotted it off to his gallery (for example, buying 30 paintings off Picasso for 2,000 francs, p.270).

Private collectors – like the Stein family, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude who arrived in Paris in 1902, and whose adventures we follow in some detail – pale in comparison with the professional activities of Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the growing band of professional art dealers.

As a result of the growing interest of the dealers – and of wealthy collectors and patrons like the Russian Shchukin – we watch Picasso and his fellow painters in particular go from starving in garrets (specifically, the ramshackle building in Montmartre known as the Bateau-Lavoir) trying to flog paintings for 15 francs a pop to – in the last few chapters of the book, by 1909, 1910 – being paid two or three thousand francs per consignment, huge sums which allow Matisse to give up the burden of teaching and move out of Paris altogether, and Picasso to rent a swanky apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lots of addresses…

Above all In Montmartre is – as its title suggests – the biography of a place, the ramshackle alleyways and slums, vacant lots, little squares, scattered windmills and allotments which made up the prominent hill of Montmartre, to the north of central Paris. Still, in 1910, the haunt of the real working class, not to mention a floating population of performers who worked in cheap, tatty circuses and cabarets, it was so ramshackle that you could not only rent apartments and studio space dirt cheap, but on the northern, more derelict face (the so-called Maquis), you could simply find abandoned shacks and move in, rent-free, as Modigliani did when he first arrived in the city in 1906.

Maybe it’s because the publisher commissioned it as the biography of a place as much as of any specific artists, that Roe pays such fanatical attention to addresses. If you want to know which famous artist was living where, which road or boulevard was home to which dealer’s gallery where so-and-so’s studio was, the precise locations of the top cafés and cabarets – Roe is your woman.

Much more even than descriptions of the art, Roe’s text is absolutely stuffed with addresses, precise directions how to get there, and which floor the collectors had to clamber up to, to discover Picasso or Matisse or Derain daubing away.

  • In 1900 Picasso was living in Nonell’s studio in the rue Gabriel while Braque was living two streets away in the rue des Trois Frères.
  • Matisse’s studio in February 1901 was at 19 quai Saint Michel.
  • Marie Laurencin, painter, printmaker and later muse to Apollinaire, lived at 51 boulevard de la Chapelle, an extension of the boulevard Rochechouart.
  • In 1904 Picasso was staying at the Hôtel Poirier at the corner of the rue des Trois Frères and the rue Ravignan. The Place Ravignan (since renamed the place Émile Goudeau) was just below the place du Tertre.
  • In 1904 Braque moved into a rented studio at rue d’Orsel, near the offices of the anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, a couple of hundred yards from the place Ravignan.
  • By the time she met Picasso in August 1904, Fernande Olivier (destined to become his first muse) was living at the ramshackle building known as the Bateau-Lavoir ‘on the ground floor, in room number three, on the rue d’Orchamps side’ (p.88)
  • The cabaret artistique, the Lapin Agile, was ‘a dark little two-roomed cottage nestling between the trees at the corner of the rue Corot and the rue des Saules’.
  • Maurice Utrillo lived at 12 rue Cortot from 1906 to 1914, Raoul Dufy shared an atelier there from 1901 to 1911. It is now the Musée de Montmartre.
  • The circus Medrano was in a large building at the foot of the Butte (the hill or ‘mound’) at the corner of the boulevard Rochevcouart and the rue des Martyrs, once site of the Circus Fernando where, in 1879, Degas painted Miss Lala hanging by her teeth from a rope, a painting now in the London National Gallery.

And so on. No one goes anywhere or does anything without Roe nailing down precisely where it was, with the street, the number, the floor and – if you’re lucky – the precise room number given. The digital version of the book ought to have a deal with Google Maps so that each address links through to a map with, ideally, archive photos of what the place looked like then, next to photos of what it looks like now.

… but not so many illustrations

I annotated the book with a line by each address that was mentioned, and an asterisk by each painting that was mentioned. Flicking back through the book makes me realise that a) nearly as many addresses are referenced as paintings b) the book only contains eight full-colour illustrations of paintings.

Since the point of the book is (at least partly) about the evolution in style of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque and so on, you want to see the works which are liberally mentioned throughout, and sometimes analysed in considerable detail (e.g. the four pages devoted to analysing Picasso’s breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). But since hardly any of them are illustrated in the text, I ended up spending quite a lot of time on the computer googling the images mentioned in the text, but not included. In other words, it’s not a very visual guide to the period.

Instead it does what it says on the tin – provides an enjoyable romp through who lived where, bumped into who, organised such and such an exhibition, started painting this or that famous work, went holidaying and painting in Normandy or the South, arrived in Paris from abroad and stayed at the so and so hotel before moving into studios at such and such address, and was bought up by such and such a dealer who had just moved into new bigger premises on the Boulevard thingummy.

It’s in this respect that the book is as much the biography of a place as of the avant-garde artists or art of its time.

Timeline of the avant-garde 1900s

The book begins with a pen portrait of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and how the last few weeks of its run saw the arrival of a nineteen-year-old Spanish artist in town, come to seek his fortune and try his luck – Pablo Picasso.

1900

  • April to November the Exposition Universelle is held in buildings erected in the open ground around the Eiffel Tower
  • October – Pablo Picasso arrives in Paris aged 19.
  • Winter – Picasso heads back to Barcelona for Christmas with his family.

1901

  • Cézanne paints his portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which allegedly took 115 sittings and still wasn’t finished.
  • February – Picasso’s friend Casagemas commits suicide by shooting himself in front of the woman who was spurning him. This really affects Picasso who sinks into a prolonged depression and starts doing paintings of down and outs, sad people, outcasts, in a monochrome blue, the so-called ‘Blue period‘ which lasts into 1904.
  • March – 71 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, his first solo exhibition anywhere. Here Matisse (aged 31) runs into André Derain (21) and his tall, burly friend, Maurice Vlaminck (25), all three of whom would become the core of the ‘Fauves’.

1902

  • The first narrative movie – A trip to the moon – is shown (the first ever film had only been shown in 1896).
  • September – Émile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne, dies, possibly murdered by his opponents in the long-running Dreyfus Affair.
  • October – Back in Barcelona, Picasso’s uncle pays for him to avoid Spanish military service.
  • Leo Stein arrives in Paris in 1902 and takes rooms at 27 rue de Fleurus, close to the Luxembourg Gardens where he is joined by his sister, Gertrude (b.1874) that autumn. In 1904 Michael Stein arrives with his wife and child and takes an apartment at rue Madame, just round the corner from rue de Fleurus. They immediately begin collecting contemporary art.

1903

  • February – Matisse is living at his parent’s home in Bohain, northern France.
  • May – Paul Gauguin dies in Tahiti.
  • October – The first Salon d’Automne shows 990 works.

1904

  • April – Picasso is back in Paris. He paints Boy leading a horse, epitome of his ‘Rose period’.
  • Matisse spends the summer staying with neo-Impressionist or Divisionist artist, Paul Signac, at St Tropez in the south of France, discovering the bright white light of the Mediterranean, and paints the pointillist Luxe, calme et volupte.
  • July – Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi arrives in Paris. Born in 1876, he is 38 years old.
  • October – the second Salon d’Automne features 2,044 works and has a Renoir room (35 works) and a Toulouse-Lautrec room (28 rooms).

1905

  • March – as part of the annual Salon des Indépendants, organised by Signac, Matisse helped put together a display of 45 works by van Gogh (who had committed suicide as long ago as 1890). Matisse later said this was a turning point in his career, van Gogh helping him turn away from Signac’s Divisionism towards a more expressive style.
  • In early summer Matisse’s wife discovers the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure near Perpignan, and Matisse goes there to start painting fiery bright paintings of the landscape and people. He writes to all his friends in Paris to join him but only André Derain replies and arrives, tall, dressed in a white suit with a red beret, and they both spend the summer feverishly painting. By the start of September Derain had completed 30 canvases, 20 drawings and 15 sketches.
  • 5 September – Fernande Olivier moves in with Picasso thus starting their tempestuous relationship, during which he painted more than 60 portraits of her. He paints performers from the nearby Montmartre circuses, including Boy with a pipe (which, in 2004 was sold for $104 million to the head of an Italian food processing conglomerate).
  • October – the third Salon d’Automne includes a room devoted to the brightly coloured works of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Their visual violence leads art critic Louis Vauxcelles to nickname them all wild beasts, or ‘fauves’. And so an art movement was born.
  • Michael Stein buys Matisse’s Madame Matisse in  a green hat for the full asking price of 500 francs, massively relieving Matisse’s financial straits.
  • November – dealer Ambroise Vollard buys Derain’s entire stock of paintings, 89 oils and 80- watercolours,for an unprecedented 3,300 francs (p.134). Then buys a 100 francs-worth of work from Vlaminck.
  • November – Vollard commissions Derain to travel to London to paint city landscapes, such as Charing Cross bridge, following in the footsteps of Monet (as explained by the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain).
  • December – Kees van Donger, his wife and little girl move into the Bateau-Lavoir and become close friends of Picasso and Fernande. Picasso is painting a portrait of Gertrude Stein – she claims she had to do 99 sittings for it. Gertrude is working out her revolutionary new prose style. She notices that what she calls Picasso’s ‘harlequin’ phase is played out.

1906

  • January – Amedeo Modigliani arrives in Paris, aged 21. He moves into a derelict shack on the Montmartre hill and establishes a reputation as a dissolute womaniser gifted with phenomenal draughtsmanship.
  • 19 March – Matisse’s one-man show opens at the Galerie Druet, displaying 60 paintings hardly any of which sell.
  • Juan Gris arrives in Paris from Spain, at first supporting himself by doing satirical illustrations.
  • April – Vollard gives Picasso 2,000 francs in exchange for all his recent paintings, enough to fund Picasso to take Fernande on a holiday to Spain, specifically to the village of Gosol where he painted the locals and himself in a chunky new ‘primitive’ style. – Picasso self-portrait (1906)
  • October – Paul Cézanne dies.
  • October – the fourth Salon d’Automne opens with a vast display of the entire history of Russian art collected and arranged by Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev (b.1872 and so 34), marking the start of Diaghilev’s artistic and musical adventures in Paris. The Salon also shows a big retrospective of Gauguin including drawings, ceramics, 227 paintings and his totemic carvings.

1907

  • April – Matisse leaves Paris to paint at Collioure.
  • Spring – Picasso visits the Ethnography Museum and is bewitched by the power of African fetishes. From now on all his work now shows angular human figures with harsh, stylised shapes and blank eyes, completely different from the naive figuratism of either the blue or rose period. – Dance of the Veils, 1907
  • August – Matisse starts writing Notes of a painter, published in 1908.
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opens his gallery at 28 rue Vignon. He will become one of the greatest supporters of Cubist art and will have his portrait painted by Picasso just three years later.
  • Autumn – Picasso cautiously unveils Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (originally just titled The brothel) to close friends and a fellow artists. Nobody likes it and he puts it away for 16 years.

1908

  • By the spring Picasso’s gang or bande had crystalised into Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. Picasso (25) formed a particularly close working relationship with Braque (26), reading the same pulp paperbacks, going to the same clubs, to the cinema, thinking about the next step in their odyssey away from traditional painting.
  • August – Picasso spends a month painting in the country at La Rue des Bois, a tiny hamlet near Creil, north of Paris.
  • November – Braque holds a one-man show at Kahnweiler’s gallery. It was here that the same critic who coined the expression ‘fauve’ described the content of many of Braque’s landscapes with houses as containing ‘petits cubes’. Cubism was born – or at least, named.

1909

  • February – Matisse is in Cassis, studying seawaves as preparation for La Danse, a major commission for a mural from the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. This year Shchukin opens his collection of French avant-garde art (Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse) to the public in St Petersburg.
  • February – the first Futurist manifesto was published in Italy.
  • May – the Ballets Russes give their first performance in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet and become wildly fashionable.
  • May to September Picasso is in Spain, visiting relatives in Barcelona, but mostly at the village of Horta where he had spent time when he was ill as a teenager, accompanied by his mistress Fernande, who was herself severely ill with a kidney infection.
  • September Vollard pays Picasso 2,000 francs for thirty paintings and Picasso can at last afford to leave the slums of Montmartre and move into a swanky apartment on the boulevard Clichy.
  • The Bernheim-Jeune brothers become Matisse’s sole dealers, guaranteeing to buy everything he paints, with a sliding scale depending on size. This is the first reliable income Matisse, now aged 40, has ever had.

1910

  • February-March Matisse holds a retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, including sixty-five paintings and twenty-five drawings.
  • May – the Ballets Russes return with a new repertory of ballets, featuring the greatest dancer of the era, Nijinsky.
  • Juan Gris moves into the Bateau-Lavoir and begins to paint cubist paintings.
  • October – First cubist works show at the Salon d’Automne. Matisse displays La Danse and La Musique which are both greeted with howls of criticism.
  • November – Roger Fry organises an exhibition bringing together works by French artists from the previous thirty years under the title ‘Post-Impressionism’ at the Grafton Gallery in London.

Holidays or whores

In The Secret Lives of the Impressionists I noticed Roe’s fondness for describing women’s boobs and busts and lingering on the opportunities for a titillating glimpse of female flesh given by, for example, holiday trips to the seaside in the 1870s to watch bathing beauties.

In this book I really noticed her fondness for the word ‘whore’. I won’t bore you with a string of quotes, but she uses it a lot to describe the prostitutes who thronged around Montmartre (and who the artists alternately used and painted).

I find ‘whore’ a blunt, mannish word; in fact I tend to associate it with male writers who want to convey a show-off sense of their own man-of-the-world toughness. There is available to writers the much more neutral word ‘prostitute’ – and these days I thought we were all meant to use the non-judgmental phrase ‘sex workers’.

In Roe’s hands (pen, keyboard or discourse) the prolific use of the word ‘whore’ seems to me to epitomise the drastic change in atmosphere from the sunlit world of the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s to the much more intense, night-time, bars-and-cabarets-and-circuses world of the noughties, the world of late Toulouse-Lautrec, to the beggars and street people of Picasso’s blue period, to van Dongen’s brutal depictions of naked women with splayed legs, to Matisse and Derain’s terrifyingly intense portraits.

It is a harsher world. Thus, for example, Roe writes – brutally, I think – that the five women depicted in Picasso’s epoch-making painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are ‘not only whores but whores with attitude’ (p.220).

It came as a complete revelation to me that Les demoiselles are in fact ‘whores’. All the commentary (not only in this book but in several online articles, once I came to read about it) takes it for granted that the painting depicts a brothel with a bunch of naked women standing around, and that their blunt sexuality is part of the point.

I’ve known this painting for forty years or more and never given it a thought that it is set in a brothel. I thought it was one more example of the thousands of paintings in the western tradition of a number of half-dressed women standing around, not least thousands of scenes from the classical world.

Certainly the women’s supposed ‘sexuality’ is the last thing I notice when I look at it. Coming from a world awash with images of naked women (and from Western art awash with nudes) my first response to this painting isn’t shock at their ‘blatant sexuality’ – I can see boobs and bums in thousands of other paintings.

It is dismay and difficulty at the aggressively unsensual depiction of the figures, of their angular bodies and especially, of course, the blacked-in primitive masks of the right-hand pair. I register it as a calculated assault on our visual conventions and norms which still, 110 years later, retains its capacity to shock and awe. Like a lot of Picasso, I don’t think I like it but I respond to its horrible power.

Roe’s book is a thoroughly researched, colourful and absorbing portrait of the world from which this weird and challenging art emerged.


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Cézanne Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

Over a working life of some forty-five years, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made almost 1,000 paintings, about 160 of which are portraits. This major international exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world, including quite a few which have never been seen in the UK, allowing us to review the development of his style and technique through the prism of this one genre.

It proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner, starting with family members, especially the series of his Uncle Dominique, dating from the 1860s – some 26 self-portraits – a whole room devoted to portraits of his wife, Hortense – and ends with his portraits of working class men and women near his home in Aix-en-Provence, particularly portraits of his gardener, Vallier.

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on we learn that Cézanne was schoolboy friends with Émile Zola who went on to become one of France’s most famous/important novelists. Zola pioneered a fictional approach he called ‘Naturalism’, according to which the work of art is a scientific experiment to investigate the impersonal forces, both genetic and social, which shape people’s lives, an attitude in which ‘the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view’.

Throughout the exhibition the curators, as you’d expect, go to some lengths to explain who each sitter was, what their relationship to Cézanne was, with anecdotes about the number of sittings it took (115 sittings for the portrait of the art dealer Vollard), whether the sitter was happy etc, along with speculations about what the portrait tells us about Cézanne’s feelings for the sitter – respect, love and so on.

Quite quickly I began to think this was utterly the wrong approach. None of the sitters has any expression at all, certainly none of them are smiling or indicating any emotion. In fact most of the mature portraits almost deliberately reject emotional interpretation.

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

For me the exhibition was quite clearly the story of one man’s struggle with his art and technique. From these half dozen rooms and fifty or so portraits Cézanne comes across as a difficult, angry man, fighting with his medium, permanently dissatisfied, taking ridiculously long periods to struggle with works which he often abandoned and sometimes destroyed, like his portrait of Alfred Hauge, stitched back together and on display here.

He is off in his own world, day by day carrying on an endless battle to make the medium of oil painting fulfil his vision. Cézanne never painted portraits as commissions; he only painted who he wanted to. It struck me as being an immensely private world. If, from time to time, some of the works fit in with what the wider world thinks of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘wonderful’, well, so be it; but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care for traditional ideas of ‘beauty’ or ‘painting’, he doesn’t care what his family thinks or his wife thinks, he is off in his own world, following his own, often very difficult, path.

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne (1880-1) © The National Gallery, London

Self-Portrait (1880-1) by Paul Cézanne © The National Gallery, London

Take the 10 portraits of his wife, Hortense. If you like lots of biography to explain your art, then it’s interesting to learn that he’d had a relationship with her for 17 years before he finally married her; and that he only married her after another love affair he’d been having ended traumatically. So she does seem to have been a sort of second best.

None of that helps when you confront the actual paintings. In portrait after portrait she has the face of an emotionless mannekin and the body of a doll. In my opinion this isn’t a depiction of someone he either loves or doesn’t love, who is in either a good or a bad mood (the kind of psychological and emotional tripe the commentary speculates about). It is a purely technical challenge, a struggle with oil paint and technique.

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, says: ‘Many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology.’ Exactly. My friend was scandalised by the apparently ‘heartless’ way Cézanne painted his wife: where is the love and affection and respect and blah blah? To me, completely the wrong way of thinking about Cézanne’s work.

My notion of ‘the struggle’ also explains why he did so many series – 10 of Uncle Dominique, 17 of Hortense, 26 self-portraits, repeated portraits of his gardener, and so on. And also explains why he destroyed his own canvases in frustration. It was an unending struggle. It was war.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s technique

So what was his technique, what was the battle all about?

From the start he made no attempt to paint in the smooth aesthetic style of the French Academy and Salon, in a style which concealed brushstrokes in order to create a flat surface designed to give the illusion of life. The exact opposite. He and his pal Zola were going to remodel French culture, to force people to see the crude realities of life, Zola in blunt realistic sentences, Cézanne in harsh, unflattering brushstrokes. The first room shows young Cézanne in the 1860s sculpting oil onto canvas with his palette knife like a brickie lays on mortar. Thick, shaped roughly and confidently, in highly visible strokes half an inch wide.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 - 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 – 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

He himself described this as his manière couillarde (where couilles means ‘testicles’) which could be translated as his ‘ballsy manner’.

He remains true to this founding approach all his life but develops and explores it. Through the 1870s two things happen: the paint gets a lot thinner, and he explores a technique of building up patches of the same colour using repeated one- or two-inch long strokes. These strokes come in parallel blocks or sets of strokes, running across face or background like patches of the palette, built up systematically.

It is the use of these blocks of strokes in the same colour which give all Cézanne’s work such a distinctive feel. Arguably the technique works best with landscapes, witness the scores of versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he did over decades. Here in the portraits this technique of diagonal strokes gives the works a sense of monumentality – the eerie feeling that something bigger and more important is being conveyed.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another way of trying to define this visual effect is in terms of geometry – luckily Cézanne himself gives us a handy quote, when he wrote to Émile Bernhard giving advice about painting and included the phrase ‘Deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. The cyclinder, the sphere and the cone. Quite obviously, then, Cézanne was himself aware of the way his eye sought out the geometry buried in the flesh (or landscape or still life or whatever).

But even without knowledge of this quote it would be easy to see the way the technique of chunks or blocks of very visibly modelled colour can be seen as almost geometric shapes – to my eye they look like rectangular slabs, crafted and placed at angles to each other. It is a highly analytical way of seeing and painting, not at all concerned with sensuous surfaces as per the long tradition of Salon art. Its unfinishedness bespeaks its experimental nature.

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

From the 1870s onwards he uses much thinner applications of paint, allowing much more of the canvas to show through, all over, as the paint rasps and runs out, and the brushstroke doesn’t completely cover the space. This draws attention to the painting as a painting, as a construct of paint on a canvas, and away from a naturalistic depiction of ‘reality’.

In other pictures you can see something else quite radical going on, which is his subtle mixing up of perspective: a table or chair or arm or wall or other elements will be subtly at odds with the perspective of the central figure. It is another way of being more interested in the geometry than the strictly realistic appearance of the subject.

Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, talks about Cézanne’s mission to get at ‘the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering colour’, which I think is correct, apart from the shimmering colour. Monet shimmers, I don’t think Cézanne shimmers.

Towards the art of the future

By now you can see how these are the elements which endeared Cézanne to the next generation of artists:

  • painting as painting rather than window on the world
  • deploying paint in blocks or cubes to build up a sense of space, to bring out the inner geometry of a figure
  • indifference as to whether the paint covers the canvas or not, in fact developing an aesthetic of leaving many bits of the canvas untouched
  • faces as a mask, like the blank masks of African art Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by, expressionless

And so you can see why both Picasso (b.1881) and Matisse (b.1869) are credited with the quote that Cézanne ‘was the father to us all’, paving the way for the completely new ways of seeing developed by the Cubists, the Fauvists and successive generations of avant-garde artists. Doesn’t this mask-like depiction of his son anticipate Picasso’s mask faces of a generation years later?

The Artist's Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Franck Raux

The Artist’s Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

In 1895 Cézanne had a successful one-man show which finally gave him success and entry into artistic Paris. The exhibition shows some of the more formal portraits he attempted of Paris’s intellectual class, critics and writers set against thronged bookshelves. But he wasn’t happy and the preceding works in the show help you understand why: these were clever people who expected a measure of human character in their portraits, whereas Cézanne was much more at home with simple and above all psychologically blank subjects.

This – along with any lingering radical sentiment from the Zola years – goes to explain why he abandoned Paris altogether, retiring to his estate near his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence, and painting the unpretentious local workers, peasants, blokes in cafés smoking pipes or playing cards, old ladies. Here he was under no pressure to conform to artist as psychologist and instead could indulge his interest in form to the full.

With the paradoxical result that these images of relative strangers end up being somehow more successful, somehow more complete because he can relax into his technique, and so manage to convey more through their purely artistic coherence, than any of the portraits of his wife ever did.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Art in the flesh

This reproduction makes Man with a pipe look a lot more smooth and finished than it is in the flesh. The reason for going to art galleries rather than looking at paintings on a computer screen is to see up close the craft and artistry of the painter. In the flesh, the diagonal strokes of brown and grey (and green and white) which make up this painting are genuinely thrilling. But what you can’t see at all from the reproduction is the amazing way the wavy black line of the shirt is so confidently drawn, or the way the lighter brown patches around it are in fact the bare canvas untouched by paint, or the half-slapdash way he’s dabbed in the black of the buttons. It really is thrilling to see the confidence and exuberance with which it’s painted. I stood and stared at just this line for minutes, marvelling.

A lot of the portraits in this exhibition are plain ugly or plain bad, and the overall effect of the show is, I found, quite repelling. But in the handful or so of portraits which really come off, the combination of sombre subject and highly stylised brushwork, seen really close up and in the flesh, is electric.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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