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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