“The art exhibition of the year,” claims The Telegraph in their five-star rating after the opening of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Cézanne Portraits on 26th October 2017. For the first time, over 50 portraits painted by the Post-Impressionist artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) have been brought together from collections all over the world, including some that have never been displayed before in the United Kingdom.
Of the thousand paintings Cézanne produced during his career of four decades, only 160 or so were portraits. Naturally, the National Portrait Gallery has focused on these rather than the still life and landscape paintings the artist is also famous for. However, by studying portraits alone, a timeline of Cézanne’s life emerges complete with the changes in artistic style and his social interactions.
One of the first portraits in this exhibition is of Louis-Auguste Cézanne (1798-1886), the domineering father of the artist. Paul Cézanne was born on 19th January 1839 to Louis-Auguste and Anne Elizabeth Honorine and grew up in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France with his two younger sisters, Mary and Rose. His father, a hat manufacturer and part-time bank owner, wished for his son to enter the family banking business and insisted Cézanne study law at the Univerity of Aix. However, Cézanne’s passion remained in drawing for which he took evening classes and eventually received his father’s permission to study at the Académie Suisse in Paris.
The painting of Louis-Auguste Cézanne, titled The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement”, reveals his officious character seated on a throne-like chair. Although it may not be obvious immediately, there is a sign of the hostility between father and son by the inclusion of the title of the paper. Presumably, Cézanne’s father sat for his son with a newspaper in hand, however, Cézanne has painted on a title that his father would never read. L’Événement was a paper in which the French writer and close friend, Émile Zola, often published favourable reviews of some painters.
The artistic style is fairly typical of Cézanne’s early work with thick paint heavily spread with a palette knife. The colours are mainly black, greys and burnt sienna, which the artist favoured during his studies in Paris where he met Impressionist painters Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. The latter became a good friend and eventually rid the dark colours from Cézanne’s paintings and encouraged him to be more fluid with his brush strokes. However, until then, Cézanne persevered with his dense paintings, unfortunately being rejected several times by the Salon, France’s official art exhibition.
Only one portrait of Cézanne’s father is on show, however, there are several paintings of other family members and friends. It appears that an Uncle Dominique was a willing sitter during Cézanne’s beginning years as an artist. The portraits are slabbed with thick, dark paint with the palette knife and brush strokes clearly visible. His uncle was painted from different angles implying that Cézanne was using the willing volunteer for painting practice. Cézanne never charged for his portraits – another reason his uncle was probably happy to be his model!
The person to feature most often in Cézanne’s portraits was his wife, Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922). They first met in 1869 whilst Cézanne was studying, however, did not marry until 1886 because they worried about the reaction of his father. Cézanne feared his father would disapprove of the relationship and cut him off financially. Although Cézanne made a little money from paintings, he was reliant upon the allowance supplied by his father.
When Cézanne met Hortense, she was making a living as a seamstress and model, therefore, because she was accustomed to sitting still for long periods, was an ideal subject for portraits. It is thought that Cézanne painted 40 portraits of his wife, a significant contrast to the handful he produced of his son, Paul, born in 1872. A number of paintings of Hortense are shown in this exhibition and span the length of Cézanne’s career. Comparing the early portraits with the later ones signifies the slight changes in style, from sombre slab-like paint to fluid, lighter brushstrokes.
Admittedly, Hortense Cézanne was not much to look at and her husband never attempted to flatter her in his paintings. She comes across as a stern, severe, unsmiling woman who is never very happy. Perhaps her facial expression, or lack of, is an indication of the length of time she had to sit for her perfectionist husband. Cézanne suffered from self-doubt and often reworked paintings to try and make them better or ripped up the canvas if he was not satisfied with it.
When studying, Cézanne was often found in the Louvre admiring and copying paintings by Rubens, Michelangelo and Titian. He loved the style of Caravaggio’s work but was not confident enough about his artistic ability to pursue this approach – hence his impressionistic technique.
Although Cézanne painted his wife numerous times, the paintings never quite look like the same person. There are enough similarities to know who the portraits depict, however, there are some which could easily be believed to be sisters rather than one individual. Cézanne focused more on the shading and colours in a composition than the person or object he was painting, which often resulted in obscure proportions.
The changes from heavily loaded brushes and palette knives to the more gentle technique occurred after Cézanne spent some time with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) in Auvers-sur-Oise, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of France, not far from the capital city. Here, Pissarro taught Cézanne a few impressionist techniques including how to apply soft colours with small brushstrokes.
“Pissarro was like a father to me, a little like God”
Cézanne went on to exhibit at the first (1874) and third (1877) Impressionist Group exhibitions, however, his work was heavily criticised. Although Cézanne adopted a few impressionist approaches, he was different from the other exhibitors, thus falling into the category of Post-Impressionism.
As the exhibition progresses in a somewhat chronological order, the paintings lose their sombre tone and begin to reveal more colour, particularly red. A Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90), pictured on the poster for the exhibition, is evidence of this. Cézanne also applied unnatural colours to create shadow and tone within the faces. This, critics believe, is the evidence of a new direction that Cézanne’s work was taking: Cubism.
Cubist artists have also been interested in Cézanne’s Portrait of Gustave Geffroy (1865), a French novelist and critic. Unlike many of his previous portraits, this one has a detailed background containing a bookcase with geometric dimensions that contrast with the sitter.
In true Cézanne fashion, this painting took three months to complete and he was still not happy with it. “I am a little upset at the meagre result I obtained, especially after so many sittings and successive bursts of enthusiasm and despair.” However, he did not destroy his efforts. Likewise, his portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), an art dealer who promoted Cézanne’s work, took over 100 sittings. Apparently, Cézanne professed he was “not displeased with the shirt front” and promptly abandoned the painting.
“Cézanne’s art … lies between the old kind of picture, faithful to a striking or beautiful object, and the modern ‘abstract’ kind of painting, a moving harmony of colour touches representing nothing.” – an art critic
As the exhibition approaches the final sections, Cézanne’s style shifts slightly once more. By this point, he was applying geometric shapes to his still-life and landscape paintings, moving closer to Cubism and further from Impressionism. Although he did not go as far as to create Cubist portraits, it may have influenced some of the changes that are shown in this display.
As Cézanne got older, so did his models, including some farm labourers who he paid to sit for him. One who began to feature frequently was his gardener and general handyman.
One of Cézanne’s final portraits of the gardener, The Gardener Vallier (1906), is a total contrast to the paintings at the beginning of his career. The painting looks rushed as though it was sketched quickly and not finished, however, the painting actually took years to produce.
Cézanne was largely misunderstood by the public during his lifetime and it was not until 1904 that the Salon finally accepted his work. This begs the question why? Impressionist painters were popular amongst art collectors but Cézanne was never treated in the same way. Maybe critics thought he was not a good artist, after all, his paintings were rarely accurately portrayed.
Nonetheless, Cézanne is now considered one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century and continues to inspire painters today. The famous Picasso dubbed him the “father of us all” and Matisse, who bought a piece by Cézanne in 1899, was another painter impacted by his work.
“It has sustained me spiritually in critical moments of my career as an artist; from it I have drawn my faith and perserverance.” – Matisse, 1936
After seeing the exhibition, it is not clear what The Telegraph saw to give it a five-star review. Admittedly, the paintings are displayed well in a logical order, each room containing information about the portraits and details about Cézanne’s life. There is also a short video showing images of his studio in Aix, which is now a museum open to the public. However, unless visitors are Cézanne fanatics, a five-star rating seems a bit excessive. The National Portrait Gallery always do well to curate extensive exhibitions, but it ultimately comes down to personal taste.
“Painting is damned difficult – you always think you’ve got it, but you haven’t.”
Cézanne Portraits will be on display until 11th February 2018. Tickets are priced £18