Paul Cézanne in his studio at Les Lauves, 1904

The Father of us All

3rd November 2017

You may feel you’ve seen more than enough of Paul Cézanne, but a new show at the National Portrait Gallery focuses on a lesser known side of his output: his work as a portrait painter. Jack Watkins went along…

It was Henri Matisse who described Paul Cézanne as the ‘father of us all’. To Pablo Picasso, Cézanne was ‘the mother who protects her children’. Make what you will of Picasso’s comment, but I can see where Matisse was coming from. When the Impressionists started to exhibit – and for years afterwards – many critics attacked the pictures for their unfinished look, or for the choice of subject matter. Scenes of people loafing about on a riverbank or having a joke in a bar, or of the encroachment of the railways or industry onto fields on the edge of town were deemed outside the accepted canon. At least, though, these were still pictures with a recognisable subject matter, which depicted them in a generally pictorially attractive manner.

Cézanne, however, was after something else. You could say he is the moment where paintings start to become difficult, where the clear presentation of the ostensible subject matter is no longer always the prime motivating purpose or point of focus. He marks the point where the artist started to probe and seek to paint more than just a representative picture of, say, a landscape, but to record more accurately what they felt, as much as saw.

Of course, for years many artists had tried to get beneath their subject to convey something of its inner essence, but after Cézanne it became more common to strive to capture the impression the subject made upon them, and their own emotional response to that impact. In this way, the work of Cézanne, the first of the so-called Post-Impressionists, can be seen as the gateway to Modern Art, with its fractured visuals and general weirdness. Yes, he has a lot to answer for.

Yet he’d died believing his life and work had been a failure – which in a sense was true, since while he was alive his paintings had practically no value in the marketplace whatsoever. Today his art is both valued and evaluated. In 2011, a piece from his Card Players series sold for skywards of £270m. The last thing we need, you might think, is yet another exhibition.

The artist’s portraiture, however, is one facet that has tended to be overlooked. Step forward the National Portrait Gallery. Its new blockbuster show is the first to focus solely on his portraits since 1910, four years after his death, and assembles over 50 examples of his work in that genre drawn from across his entire 45-year career. The Gallery’s director, Dr Nicholas Cullinan, says these pictures are being brought together for the first time “to reveal arguably the most personal, and therefore most human, aspect of Cézanne’s art.” And it succeeds because, as a truly international show that began at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and which will be heading to Washington’s National Gallery of Art after it has completed its London stint, the organisers have had the means to bring together enough of the masterpieces to really convey the artist’s abilities in this area.

Cézanne is known to have painted nearly 200 portraits in his career, including 26 of himself and 29 of his wife, Hortense. It is typical of this obsessive artist that he should subject his own appearance to the same repeated close scrutiny that he did to Mont St Victoire and the forests near his home in Provence. For the earliest self-portrait here, dated 1862, he painted (uncharacteristically, because his preference was to work while observing himself in a mirror) from a photograph that had been taken the previous year. Produced during his ‘Dark Period’, it’s an unprepossessing Cézanne that we see in this painting. He looks unsure of himself, unattractive, intense to the point of sinister, minus the beard, but with the full head of hair that would desert him in later years. In a portrait in 1875, the focus was on the scruffy hair and thick beard, but by 1892, a new self-portrait shows us a more confident, questioning figure, gazing at us over his right shoulder, sporting a bowler hat, and a beard and whiskers flecked with grey.

Three of the most beautiful pictures in the show are of Hortense, all painted around the same period between 1888 and 1890. An artists’ model, she was a striking enough personality to have provided the inspiration for a character in Émile Zola’s The Masterpiece, in which he depicted the ups and downs of a group of progressive young painters struggling to make their way in the Parisian art world of the mid-19th century. While Cézanne and Hortense had met at art school many years before, by the mid-1880s the artist had gone public with the fact that he no longer had any feelings for his wife, and you can almost feel something of that coldness and estrangement in the paintings.

My personal favourite is Madame Cézanne in a Striped Dress, with that sad, sideways tilt of her head, lost in melancholy and self-absorption, but perhaps the most famous is Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair. This was a work that would have had conventionally minded observers of the time jumping up and down in fury for its lack of obvious finish. Cézanne apparently decided he had achieved the effect he wanted, and simply left off painting any further. Today we’d call it a masterpiece for the way he has reduced everything down to their essences. There’s a blocky quality to the way he has painted Hortense’s head, and it doesn’t seem so big a leap to imagine the influence it might have had on the thinking of the Cubists who were to follow.

Many of these paintings have great stories behind them or deep associations with the unfolding of Cézanne’s career. The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Evenement, capturing a reasonably benign looking figure in a skull cap, points us in the direction of Cézanne’s well-upholstered background. His father was a banker, and young Cézanne initially seemed destined for a career in law. He was terrified of his father, who was understandably sceptical about his son’s artistic ambitions. The pair were eventually reconciled, however – the newspaper in the portrait is a clue, for this was the journal in which Zola defended the work of radical artists like Cézanne who had been rejected by the 1866 Paris Salon – and the small allowance his father granted him, which he later upped so that it became a small fortune, meant that Cézanne never faced the prospect of having to scratch around to earn a living.

The dowdy portrait of Ambroise Vollard reminds the viewer that this was the man who staged Cézanne’s first solo art exhibition in 1895. And there’s a lovely picture of Vallier, who helped Cézanne in his garden and studio towards the end of his life. The portrait was made shortly before Cézanne’s death.

By and large, this show is not presenting us with the difficult side of Cézanne. Portraits are, after all, about as accessible a form of art as you can get. And with regards to Cézanne, who to me and many others, can sometimes seem like dull, heavy artist, that’s quite a relief. Boy In A Red Waistcoat very much feels like the work of a man edging towards a style we’d call modern art, but it’s comprehensible and painterly just the same. For a man for whom the people in his life always came second, it was probably the best we could hope for, but in its more radiant moments this show turns out to be something much more.

Cézanne Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018 • www.npg.org.

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