Exhibition Review

Cézanne’s portraits. London

In his portraits Paul Cézanne avoided all the accepted attributes of the genre as it was understood in the late nineteenth century. His aesthetic programme ruled out attempts at ‘getting a likeness’, even if his images may be ‘like’ his sitters. One remembers here his comment to Ambroise Vollard of the ‘horrible resemblance’ of most conventional art as seen in the ‘Salon de M. Bouguereau’. He had no interest in social context; there are almost no telling settings for his figures; and he had no desire to flatter or to give an exaggeratedly ‘public’ characterisation. This refusal underscores his complete independence. His subjects are sitters – just that, nearly always seated; they rarely look directly at us in the usual manner of engagement. Cézanne forensically explores their visual presence as though he had never seen them before, like a detective examining a body. Yet many of them were well known to him – his family members and restricted circle. His paid models are seen with an inviolable reticence, even though several must have been very familiar through their prolonged sessions in the studio and their roles in his domestic world. For Cézanne, this was their point.

The exhibition, at the National Portrait Gallery, London (to 11th February) and later at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (25th March to 1st July),1 which includes some of Cézanne’s cardinal works, might well disappoint those visitors still tied to the given genre of portraiture, just as a show of, say, Boldini’s portraits would grate Cézanne’s manner of presenting his sitters as impassive, even dull, is exactly what makes them so compelling to us. One consideration should not be overlooked in any ‘reading’ of Cézanne’s sitters: sitting for a portrait to a ‘slow painter’ can frequently induce a set expression, not exactly of boredom, but of a slumped introspection. In the catalogue, John Elderfield and his fellow writers do their best to glean any possible psychological and social content from the people portrayed, although Elderfield rightly warns against such ‘meddling’.2 For the most part, the sitters are mute conduits, their silent endurance ensuring their immortality in paint. The exceptions to this are shown at the beginning, where these early works carry an intensity of feeling of a more overt nature. They include the trapped sensitivity of Antony Valabrègue (1866; National Gallery of Art, Washington; cat. no.3.2), the grave and tender Achille Emperaire (1867–68; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; no.4.2) and Antoine-Fortuné Marion (no.1.2; Fig.15), an outstanding work of 1870–71 and a truly modern portrait in its nervous intimacy. The use of the palette knife in these works cuts out any possible charm. Cézanne’s increasing objectivity reduces it even further.

When we reach Madame Cézanne in a red armchair (no.7.1; Fig.14) we have arrived in true Cézanne country and are faced with one of the great works in the exhibition. Nearly half the painting is taken up with the sitter’s vertically striped skirt, a miraculous tour de force; she leans to her right in the penumbra of the red, tasselled armchair. Her marmoreal head is flushed with near-Fauvist colour, the eyes looking out, yet expressionless. The painting is both intimate and monumental, internal rhythms, long and short, locking the whole design together. We are here in the early stages of Cézanne’s new and radical synthesis of visual experience where there was no room for empirical representation. One brushstroke or patch of colour determined the next – in the density or lightness of tone, the shape, rhythm and conceptual velocity of the whole – for Cézanne could be quick as well as slow.

Through small-format portraits and self-portraits, displaying Cézanne’s continual experiments in the application of paint, we are reacquainted with Mme Cézanne (as Hortense Fiquet formally became in 1886). Four head-and-shoulders images are shown, culminating in the exquisitely mournful painting from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1885–86; no.11.4) in which, unusually, Hortense’s hair is loose and unattended, emphasising the tilt of her head to the right. It is worth mentioning here the recent so-called rehabilitation of Mme Cézanne’s reputation from a sourpuss clothes-horse, not in the least interested in her husband’s work, to the devoted sitter for nearly thirty portraits. All is speculation, either way. There is little documentation of her character or the couple’s relationship, although in letters some of Cézanne’s old friends are cattily ill-disposed towards her. There is no objective witness to confirm – or deny – the dissatisfied, withdrawn and even irritated look that seeps through Cézanne’s portrayals; nothing to compare with, for example, the documented shrewishness of Mme Pissarro.

Hortense’s position as the unwavering star of the exhibition is confirmed by the wall devoted to three large portraits of her wearing a red dress (1888–90; Art Institute of Chicago; no.14.2; 1888–90; Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand; no.14.3 and 1888–90; and no.14.4; Fig.16). Undoubtedly the finest is the last in which the threequarter- length figure is embroiled in an extraordinary push-and-pull of surrounding features – looped curtain, chair back, dado, frame and stove. All these compete for advance or recession on the picture plane, a strategy that both immobilises Hortense yet curiously liberates her. Cubism lurks in the wings.

Thereafter, a succession of masterpieces detains the visitor, evidence of the whole panoply of Cézanne’s continuing discoveries. Save for the magnificent Gustave Geffroy (1895–96; Musée d’Orsay; no.17.1), whose complexity holds us in astonished suspense, it is perhaps the simplicity and ordinariness of pose and setting that allowed Cézanne to make those discoveries. He was not afraid of the obvious. A man at a table smokes his pipe; a woman sits beside a cafetière; a boy in a red waistcoat stands against a curtain (the only standing figure in the show); an elderly gardener rests in the sun. The monolithic is achieved without recourse to grandiosity; no sentiment shows through Cézanne’s rigorous and almost irascible grappling with his perceptions of the figure that confronts him.

Given the multiple pressures involved in obtaining loans, the exhibition is a triumph, although it may well be richer at its Washington showing. The last room in London is weakened by the absence of two late portraits in the series of the gardener Vallier and a similarly posed seated man (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; no.R943); all three will be in Washington. There are one or two works that add little to what is on view elsewhere, the lumpen Girl with a doll (c.1896; private collection, New York; no.19.1) – is she a girl? – and the unrewarding head of Mme Cézanne (1886–87; Musée d’Orsay; no.13.1). Of course there are omissions, for whatever reason: the bullish portrait of Gustave Boyer in a straw hat (c.1879–71; Metropolitan Museum of Art), for example, and the extremely sensitive head of a young peasant (1890s; National Gallery of Art, Washington), despite its being in the collection of one of the host venues of the show.3 The catalogue is scrupulous and well organised with a refreshed chronology of Cézanne’s life by Jayne S. Warman and pertinent notes on many of the sitters by the late, lamented Alex Danchev.

By Richard Shone

1 The exhibition was first shown at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 13th June to 24th September 2017.

2 Catalogue: Cézanne Portraits. By John Elderfield with Mary Morton and Xavier Rey and contributions from Jayne S. Warman and Alex Danchev. 255 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (National Portrait Gallery, London, 2017), £24.95. ISBN 978–1–85514–731–7.

3 This painting was beautifully analysed by Bridget Riley in ‘Cézanne in Provence’ in this Magazine, 148 (2006), pp.621–27, fig.47.