My visit to Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was enhanced by the unusual fact that there were a lot of people in the gallery who looked like they’d walked straight out of one of the revered artist’s paintings. Unsmiling women with their hair combed tightly back were especially obvious, as though a Madame Hortense Cezanne lookalike competition was about to be judged.
There are several paintings of Cezanne’s wife in the show, paintings that are not overflowing with love or joie de vivre but are artistic explorations, more interested in shape, plane and colour than interior life. Especially in the later series, displayed in one of the final rooms of the show, Cezanne appears to have as much concern for the subject as if his wife had been a pile of apples and oranges. Hortense looks bored and desperate to escape, so maybe Cezanne did capture exactly what she was thinking, as they spent much of their married life apart.
In historical portraiture the artist often filled the background of his painting with objects – maybe important-looking books or scientific equipment – to gratify the sitter’s sense of importance. The artist might paint them in their milieu, demonstrating their contributions to society or showing their interests. Not so with Cezanne, for whom what he saw was what mattered. His portraits are all about visual surface, with little symbolism or added description. No one is made to look powerful or important. In a rare picture with a prop, painted in broad, thick, wandering brushstrokes, his father reads the pro-Impressionist L’Evenement, a paper championing avant-garde artists of the time like our man Cezanne. But generally this is an exhibition where faces stand out against muted backgrounds that are left unfocused and greyed out, directing attention back towards the subject. Cezanne wrestles with the problems of representation, switching between brushes and palette knives as he searches for a means of conveying what he sees most directly. His (rejected) contribution to the 1866 Salon is on display, an image of Anthony Valabrègue criticised for being painted not just with a knife but ‘with a pistol as well’. The hands are like piles of meat; no one went to Cezanne for a flattering portrait.
Over time his style loosens and his palette lightens. The thick, cracking paint applied with palette knives thins and he tries to build with colour rather than descriptive swirls. The positioning of the brush strokes becomes important, as they develop into diagonal patterns. It’s a definite progression, with little side-tracking or artistic cul-de-sacs on the journey. There is no period when experimentation goes wrong, no change of style to incorporate new media, rather an ongoing series of attempts to refine his understanding of both the portrait and painting in general.
Cezanne received an allowance from his father and his paintings were never about making money. He rarely accepted commissions or payment. With only a few exceptions his portraits are of friends and locals. This let him focus on experimentation and his vision, without having to make the results fit with any pre-expected requirements of a patron.
As he develops his ideas of building forms with colours, his wife Hortense is his most frequent model. His method was laborious so the amount of time she devoted to his art is huge. As an example of his lengthy practice, novelist Gustave Geoffrey sat for Cezanne everyday for three months. At which point Cezanne abandoned the portrait, which is in the show but remains unfinished. Cezanne’s analytical looking – if not his speed of working – continues to influence ongoing generations of artists and he has been called ‘the father of us all’ by at least two painters. Nice words, especially as the two painters were Matisse and Picasso.
Cezanne Portraits has over fifty of his works on display, with pieces borrowed from collections around the world showing the linear progression from experiments with paint akin to plastering a ceiling to the thinner cubist-inspiring works of his later years. Of course you don’t need to visit such a big show to appreciate his work, and Cezanne-fatigue may set in, but this is your chance to see a lot of works that probably won’t travel to the UK again.
Detail from Cezanne’s portrait of his father, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.