Cézanne Portraits at the National Gallery of Art

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on June 6, 2018
Uncle Dominique, 1866-67. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Washington’s National Gallery of Art is the third venue of a large exhibition of portraits by Paul Cézanne, organized in cooperation with the Musée d’Orsay, Paris and the National Portrait Gallery, London.  Cézanne, the artist recognized as “father” of modern art by Matisse and Picasso, and by many art historians since, was essentially an autodidact and a rebel, using far too much paint in his early years.  Only very gradually, over his forty-plus year career, did he find his voice and characteristic manner with which, however, he was never quite satisfied.  The majority of his over 1,000 paintings are landscapes and still life compositions, the portraits representing only about 160 of them.  As such, they provide a focused opportunity to follow his stylistic and technical evolution as a painter.  John Elderfield reminds us that this is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the portraits since 1910.  At that time, four years after the artist’s death on 23 October 1906, his dealer Ambroise Vollard showed 24 of them in his Paris gallery.  That exhibition was called Figures de Cézanne, a somewhat ambiguous term, even in French, with various somewhat generalized meanings including, simply, face.  I find this interesting because one of the characteristics of many of these portraits, especially those of Cézanne’s wife, Hortense Fiquet, is the remarked lack of expression on the faces of his sitters, most of whom, especially in the period before 1890, were family and close friends.  The distance that the term figure implies is something very evident in the portraits in this show, conjuring the artist seeing the subject of his portraits as an object to be rendered, much like an apple or a tree.

On the other hand, Elderfield begins his essay in the accompanying catalogue by quoting a Cézanne letter that suggests a suppressed passion in his approach to painting the model:

La lecture du modèle, et sa réalization, est quelquefois très lent à venir pour l’artiste.[1] (The reading of the model, and its realization, is sometimes very slow in coming for the artist).

One can sense the feelings of desire and frustration expressed in this single line.  Cézanne was trying somehow to achieve an approach that combined objective analysis of form with a specific “reading” of the sitter that implies a certain intimacy and understanding of character.

Woman in a Red Dress, 1888-90. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

The case of the portraits of his wife is particularly interesting in this regard.  There are a great number of them, suggesting his selection of a subject with whom he had a certain intimacy, despite the difficulties of their relationship before the death of the artist’s father in 1886, and their extended periods of separation afterward.   The artist had said that he hated people watching him paint, and while this may account for the relatively small number of portraits, it brings into question the situation of his painting Hortense with her watching him, or perhaps not.  In fact, that distant expression that she seems to have in most of her portraits may have been adopted specifically to indicate that she was not watching.

Another aspect of this can be seen in the portraits in series, something Elderfield wanted to feature in the exhibition—that is, painting the same sitter in the same or a different costume, in what appears to be a series.  Take for instance the four portraits of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) that were brought together for this show.   Two of them show the model frontally, the other pair half-turned to the left.  In three of them she is seated in a yellow floral patterned chair that frames her from behind.  The wall is blue, making a transition of primaries from the red, through the yellow to the blue, albeit in tones rather than hues.  And, as is common in his work beginning around 1880, there are tonal connections between the sitter and her chair, as well as the chair and the wall.  In only one of the four does the model appear to look toward the viewer (or the painter), but with a pursed mouth that is almost a frown, and an intensity that gradually appears to bypass the viewer all together.  She seems deep in thought in all four of them, removed but present, at the same time.

Woman with a Coffee Pot, c. 1895. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

A similar effect is seen in the well-known portrait of an unknown Woman with a Coffee Pot of c. 1893.  Here a stolid woman in a blue housedress sits next to a table in an interior made of verticals and horizontals that are not all straight.  The severity of the scene is lightened only by the pink roses on the wall paper to the far left, and some small red/orange object in the corner.  This object is the same color as patches on the tablecloth that creates a complementary contrast with the blue of the dress and that of the coffee pot whose shape is echoed in that of the woman herself.  Among the most fascinating things about this portrait is the strength projected in the almost metallic form of the woman and her removed expression.  It’s here again that we feel that simultaneous analysis and sympathetic representation.  The woman’s hands look as though they are hard-working, and the moment is a break for a cup of coffee.   Yet, it’s also here that we see another stylistic characteristic that began to appear in Cézanne as early as 1880 (as, for example, in his London Self-Portrait of that year, see below) which is the element of time added to his practice.

The world around this woman, seated so firmly, seems to slip and jostle against her.  The wall is just slightly askew. The table seems to be crowding her from the right.  And as you look, the coffee pot and cup seem to float against the table, which drops unexpectedly against the picture plane.  This kind of disjunction is more often visible in still lifes, especially from the 1890’s, but is evident in all of Cézanne’s work from about 1890 forward.  What accounts for this?

Cézanne’s statement “I paint as I see, as I feel…and I have very strong sensations” is quoted, quite appropriately, on the opening wall text to the exhibit.  Working slowly, the artist did exactly that, each time he viewed the subject.  Imagine him standing in front of the canvas on its easel.  Each time he turns to look at the model (or the still life for that matter) he records what he sees, even if the exact angle of vision is now slightly different from the one before it.  This is why in so many still lifes, especially those from c. 1890 and later, a table will be seen jumping from one level to another (for example,  Still Life with a Basket of Apples and Madeleines, c. 1894, Art Institute of Chicago), or various objects appear to be “incorrectly” represented with regard to ordinary viewer expectations of the representation of pictorial space in a painting.

Self Portrait, 1880. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

The effect can be seen in the London Self-Portrait of c.1880, a painting that is only about 11 x 14 inches, but is surrounded by an ornately carved wood frame that very nearly overpowers it.   Here the artist’s already bald head is shown against a screen of some kind, with a diamond pattern.  The edge of the screen is seen disappearing behind the artist’s hair, but below that, it juts to the left.  It is a key example of Cézanne’s experimental approach, noted in the exhibit texts, seeking volume and pictorial unity on the picture plane at the same time.   This latter was largely to be achieved by the use of what Theodore Reff first called Cézanne’s “constructive stroke;”[2] that is, using short strokes of paint of similar size like building blocks, usually directional, and uniform throughout the painting.  Also evident are color correspondences like those in the Woman with a Coffee Pot, and that merging of forms into one another mentioned above.  Note the sort of halo around the edges of the artist’s head, and of course, the total lack of emotional expression.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Featured on the cover of the catalogue, and given its own wall space in the exhibit, is the striking portrait of a Boy in a Red Waistcoat.  Painted between 1888-1890 in Cézanne’s Paris apartment on the Quai d’Anjou, it is one of four representations of the same model whom Venturi identified in 1932 as an Italian adolescent named Michelangelo de Rosa.  It is larger than the others, and more experimental in terms of the setting which can be seen as a prediction of Picasso’s abstraction of the planes of a curtain in his groundbreaking Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907.  The youth is seen standing in, as curator Mary Morton suggests, “magnificent contrapposto.”[3]   And, as Morton also writes, the boy seems both “awkward and elegant” at the same time.  As I continued to look at it, what came to me was the sense of innocence and allure it projects, of a kind of nascent sensuality and availability that made me think of Donatello’s bronze David. 

Portrait of Antony Valabèrgue, 1869-70 Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

The earliest portraits in the exhibit are of the artist’s father and his uncle Dominique, his friend Antony Valabrègue, as well as a sultry, somewhat devilish self-portrait of 1862, based on a photo of the 22 year old artist taken the year before.  All of these paintings show the heavy application with a palette knife of layers of thick oil paint.  In some works the impasto is so thick that it sits off the picture surface and is reflected by ambient light.  And the craquelure resulting from this handling in some works is truly impressive.  It is well known that Cézanne increasingly lightened his handling as he matured as an artist, and some of his very late works are so thinly painted that patches of unpainted canvas peek through his images.

The Gardener Vallier, 1902-1906. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

What was surprising here was the conclusion of the exhibition with two portraits of the gardener Vallier from 1902-1906 that are painted about as darkly and densely.  Another late portrait of a peasant woman with a rosary also recalls Cézanne’s heavy representation of figures before 1873.  These are in contrast with many other works from these last years, including the numerous watercolors of human skulls set on a table like apples, in which the unpainted white areas function as positive shapes.[4]

Skull, c. 1885-1887. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

The heavy darkness of the portraits of Vallier and of the one skull painting (a portrait?) hung near the exit conclude the exhibit with a feeling of mortality; of perhaps, an awareness on the part of the artist of his own proximate end.  On the other hand, a belief in his own strengths and a spirit of ongoing experiment never seem to have left him.   As he described himself in a letter to author Marius Roux, he was Pictor semper virens. [5]

[1].  John Elderfield, “Introduction: The Reading of the Model,” quoting Cézanne’s letter to Charles Camoin of 9 December 1904.  Cézanne Portraits, Exhibition Catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2017.

[2] Theodore Reff, “Cézanne’s Constructive Stroke,” The Art Quarterly, 25, 3, 1962, pp. 214-227.

[3] Mary Morton, Cézanne Portraits, 2017, p. 143

[4] Cézanne had three skulls in his last Aix studio at Les Lauves.

[5] “Painter ever verdant.”  The Latin expression was intended to express the idea that although aging, the artist was still capable of growth.


Cézanne Portraits,  National Gallery of Art, West Building.  On view through July 1, 2018.  Museum hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 – 5;  Sunday 11 – 6.  Visit the Museum’s website online at www.nga.gov