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Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
December 9, 2017
Throughout his life, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) painted portraits of himself as well as his family, friends, acquaintances, and local people in his vicinity at Aix-en-Provence. These paintings, numbering almost two hundred works, are testament to a long and fascinating career of inventiveness, experimentation, and radical development in the production of art. An exhibition currently on at the National Portrait Gallery brings together for the first time over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from a variety of collections worldwide, making it a unique opportunity to explore this aspect of his output.
Cézanne had a singular approach to portraiture. He focused on a small group of sitters and rather than striving to convey their physical and psychological likenesses, he considered them as straightforward subjects to be recorded in an artistic manner. As a consequence, there is nothing flattering or aggrandising in these pictures but simply a sense of truth and close observation. They are thus remarkable objects with a truly distinctive style and offer a refreshingly novel approach to the genre.
The exhibition emphasises two particular aspects of Cézanne’s portraiture: the chronological development of his work; and his use of multiple versions of the same portrait. A Self-Portrait from 1862-64 (Private Collection, New York) in the first room can be contrasted with Self-Portrait with Beret, dated 1898-1900 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in the final room. The first work is the earliest known self-portrait of the artist and is based on a photograph of him when he was twenty-two years old. It is not a flattering representation; Cézanne regards the viewer with an intense and confrontational gaze, one of his eyes bulging and the other looking upwards. The pallid and grey tones of his skin combine with blood-red accents to suggest a feeling of sadness or anger, further conveyed through his dark frown. This is a portrait which carries a mood of unhappiness and discontent. It is also highly expressive, not precise in its reference to the photograph but rather a portrayal of Cézanne’s own personal view of himself and his identity as an artist. By contrast, the second work is possibly Cézanne’s final self-portrait, painted when he led a solitary life in Aix-en-Provence, isolated from his family and friends. There is a poignancy about the work, with the artist depicted as a frail old man, his eyes blank and unanimated. Cézanne has recorded his likeness with a certain amount of detachment, his interest focused on building form with geometric shapes and contrasting layers of texture. Unlike the earlier self-portraits, which have a self-confident and declaratory quality, this work is more contemplative and inward-looking, demonstrating the changing nature of Cézanne’s approach over time.
Such comparisons between different portraits are encouraged in the exhibition, particularly when Cézanne produced complementary versions of the same portrait. The most fascinating example of this is the group of works depicting his wife Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922) wearing a red dress, dated 1888-90. Three of the four paintings from this remarkable series are included in the exhibition, having been lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis, Chateaubriand. The sight of them displayed side-by-side is absorbing. There are subtle differences in stance and mood, leading one’s eye to scan back and forth between the paintings noting their distinctions. They are difficult to read as portraits, Hortense’s face presented without expression, her identity and character seemingly not the focus or attraction for the artist. They are thus enigmatic and somewhat unsettling, yet it is clear that depicting Hortense in this manner offered Cézanne an unrivalled opportunity to experiment with colour, tone, and form. The paintings are spatially complex and intriguing in their use of the orchestration of colour to build composition and tonal variety.
This exhibition is grand and multifaceted, presenting stimulating questions about what a portrait is and should be. Each work immerses the viewer who is constantly induced to refer back to previous paintings they have seen and contrast them, in terms of both style and mood. By focusing on Cézanne’s portraits, the exhibition offers an unrivalled opportunity to develop a greater understanding of his originality as an artist as well as gaining an intriguing glimpse into the personal world in which he inhabited.
Words by Amy Parrish
Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, unto 11 February 2018