Although Cézanne himself said that he was more interested in ‘capturing a moment in time’ and the physicality of paint than in any underlying personality of the sitters for his portraits, it is impossible not to detect the persona beneath the application of oils and the layering of colours. How can one not? He is possibly better known for his still lifes and landscapes, but, throughout his career, he painted around two hundred portraits, including twenty-six selfies and twenty-nine of his wife Hortense Fiquet. On this evidence, it has to be said that she was not exactly a ‘looker’, underlining his dictum about not painting people to make them more important, or children to make them ‘cute’, or women to make them idealised beauties. Certainly, Hortense, with her expressionless oval face, was no beauty. In many of her portraits, she resembles three kicks in a mud wall. There is no levity in any of his portraits, even those of his son, Paul, and he was ferociously autocratic in his studio, allegedly shouting at his sitters if they so much as moved. Many of his more familiar paintings are on display, including the visually robust Woman with a Cafetièr from Musée d’Orsay, the charming Boy in a Red Waistcoat on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC and the deeply expressive Man with Crossed Arms from the Guggenheim.
There are four portraits of his maternal uncle Dominique, done in the style called manière couillard, from the French couilles, translated as bollocks and meaning ‘ballsy’ or coarse, which employed the use of a palette knife, rather than a brush, and was pioneered by Gustave Courbet before him, although not in portraiture. The curator John Elderfield from MOMA in New York states categorically that Cézanne was the most important portrait painter since Rembrandt, some two hundred years before. Certainly, the Dutchman was the greatest ever portraitist, but there must have been a few challengers on the way, with earlier painters like Jan Van Eyck, Raphael, Hans Holbein, Anthony Van Dyck and Diego Velasquez, not to mention late pretenders from the modern era like John Singer Sargent. Cézanne was a colossal influence on successive generations of Post-Impressionists, with whom he was categorised, Cubists and Fauvists and being cited by both Matisse and Picasso as being ‘the father of us all.’ His self-portraits, particularly those of him in a bowler hat, are striking in their modulated form and geometric simplicity. For those who wish to purchase a souvenir which is more than just a calendar, one-size-fits-all bowler hats are available in the gift shop at £55 each.
Few of his subjects were famous, although he did a double portrait of Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Emile Zola, the critic, Gustave Geffroy, who had written a favourable review in the prestigious Le Journal, and Ambroise Vollard, who staged his first major exhibition in 1895. The latter took over a hundred sittings, during which Cézanne insisted that he remained as motionless as an apple. Even so, the portrait remained unfinished, declaring that he was ‘not displeased with the shirt front.’ Later in his career, he started painted peasants or artisans, some anonymous, from the area surrounding Aix in the Provençal countryside, notably the Gardener Vallier, the Man with a Pipe, who is recognisable from the two-figure Card Players series, and Man in a Blue Smock, who also appeared in the background of two of those compositions. One of his last works was a Self-Portrait with Beret, an enfeebled man in his sixties suffering from diabetes, which compares to the defiant, almost challenging glare with which he holds the viewer, in his bowler hat, painted in the mid-1880s. This is not a particularly uplifting show, as it comprises mainly unanimated sitters with blank expressions, in various ‘un-poses’, but it does demonstrate the extraordinary painterly skills of the man, whether with a knife or brush. In rejecting a portrait of Cézanne’s friend, the journalist and critic Anthony Valabrègue, at the Paris Salon of 1866, one jury member exclaimed that the portrait was not painted with a knife but with a pistol. Those vituperative words may have come to haunt that man later in life. One can only hope so.
National Portrait Gallery
Until 11 February 2018