"I am progressing very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex forms; and the progress needed is incessant" - Paul Cezanne.
If the impressionist artists were mocked when they first appeared then the post-impressionists were derided even more so and of all artists in that loosely affiliated group it was Paul Cezanne, even more than Van Gogh, who suffered the cruellest mockery. His work was met with laughter, outrage, and sarcasm. Critic Louis Leroy said of one painting that it was so horrible that it may give a pregnant woman "a shock and cause yellow fever in the fruit of her womb before its entry into the world" and between 1864 and 1882 every single painting he submitted to the Paris salon was rejected, often because they were deemed too ugly. It was only towards the end of his life, and much more so after his death in 1906, that Cezanne's pivotal role in French art history (all art history in fact) came to be recognised.
He paved the way for cubism, futurism, and even out and out abstraction. In many ways he drew the roadmap in which 20th century artists would travel and would, as time went on, come to be rightly considered the father, or at least one of the fathers, of modern art as we know it. But when we think of Cezanne now we think firstly of his landscapes, those mountains on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, and then of his still-lifes of apples, pears, wine bottles, and folded tablecloths. Very rarely of his portraits. But he painted many of them and the National Portrait Gallery, following the wonderful 2016 show Picasso Portraits, had gathered fifty or so examples of his very finest works in this genre. They've claimed it to be the first ever retrospective dedicated entirely to Cezanne's portrait work.
This is a far more muted affair than the exuberantly colourful and ever changing Picasso exhibition was, it contains a much less starry guest list, and, with one brief exception, Cezanne appears to be a one woman man sitting in stark contrast to Piccaso's love life which was as liberal as it was expansive. Picasso surrounded himself with a seemingly endless flow of glamorous women and worshipful hangers on. Cezanne married Hortense and both enjoyed and endured a difficult, but lengthy, marriage with her.
Cezanne never accepted commissions, he never took payment for his work, and only his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, was ever allowed to hang on to his own portrait. Cezanne rarely painted anyone other than his family, friends, and the local Aixois he shared his home city with. He took a long time to paint them (as we'll discover), and, while painting them, his sitters were not allowed to pose or 'act' in any way. He refused to flatter his subjects. Men who may've wished to be made to look powerful when painted were denied this wish as were women who sought to have their glamour or attractiveness increased by allowing him to paint their likeness. He had no truck with the notion, fashionable today, of the 'psychological portrait' believing that truth could only be found in nature and in painting itself.
The artist's father, reading (1866)
Cezanne was a serious young man who had very few friends and grew irritable, possibly related to a diabetic condition, as he aged. As he'd inherited wealth from his father, a banker and hat maker, he had the luxury of being able to devote much of his life to his work and he had little need to sell his paintings to make ends meet so was able to spend most of his time considering what art was for and what art could be for. What's most remarkable, perhaps, is this almost religious adherence to the art of painting did, eventually, result in Cezanne finding a way of connecting to the art of the past whilst, simultaneously, building a path for those that followed in his footsteps.
Cezanne's closest friend in his youth was the naturalist novelist Emile Zola but even Zola was unable to see Cezanne's talent, going so far as to write a book, L'Ouevre, about a fictional struggling artist, Claude Lantier, who was unable to get the art world to see his revolutionary genius because they were stuck in hidebound ideas of traditional subjects and techniques. Even though it's been said the book could equally be seen to be about either Claude Monet or Edouard Manet, Cezanne saw red and his friendship with Zola was over. It was an early example of Cezanne's peevishness. You may admire Cezanne the artist as you wander the rooms of the National Portrait Gallery but you will probably come away with mixed feelings about Cezanne the man.
Paul Alexis reading a manuscript to Zola (1869-70)
Marie Cezanne, the artist's sister (1866-67)
In these early days of his career Cezanne was using a palette knife and his style came to be known as 'maniere couillarde' from the French word couilles which means testicles. They weren't saying his paintings were a load of old bollocks but that they were crude and ballsy. This was the technique he used both for his celebrated images of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the portraits of his sister Marie and his ever patient Uncle Dominique who posed for young Paul in a series of hats and outlandish costumes presumably borrowed from the wardrobe of his milliner father.
As Cezanne reached his early thirties he traded the palette knife, the cojones, in for a more traditional brush. You can see how the violence in the portraits of Marie and Dominique (painted around the same time Cezanne was making rape, murder, and abduction his themes) have been softened by his change in style for his no less intense realisation of Fortune Marion. Marion was the director of Marseille's Natural History Museum and, like Cezanne, a fellow lover of the Provencal landscape. Cezanne and Marion would inspire each other to view the landscape in different ways on long walks in the countryside. Marion influenced Cezanne in the same way Camille Pissarro had earlier in Paris. The two of them would make trips to Louveciennes and Pontoise for the purposes of landscape painting with Pissarro, at that time, taking the role of master to Cezanne's student.
Uncle Dominique in a turban (1866-67)
Fortune Marion (1871)
Madame Cezanne in a red armchair (1877)
In 1869 Cezanne had met Hortense Fiquet and in 1872 they had a son, also Paul, but it wasn't until 1886 they married. These days perfectly normal but quite remarkable back then. It was surely also commented on at that time that even after they'd married they often lived apart, even when they were in the same city. Their relationship seems to have been subject to several unspecified pressures, possibly from Cezanne's disapproving family, and it seems that although Cezanne loved Hortense (or Madame Cezanne as she became known) very much not everyone else did. There seems to be a touch of the Yoko Ono and John Lennon in the way those around Cezanne seemed to think they knew his heart better than he did.
Then again he did at the time look a bit mad. Compare his 1875 portrait below (painted when he was still in his mid-thirties) to the one at the start of this blog painted not more than a decade earlier and remember that for Cezanne truth was everything. He seems to have aged thirty years in ten and gone from a handsome swarthy confident young man about town to a balding obsessive with a thousand yard stare who looks like he's spent way too long in his garret with his easel and paints. Was the stressful relationship getting to him or had he been thinking so long and hard about painting that his hair had fallen out and he'd let himself go?
Victor Choquet (1877)
He wasn't out and about much anyway so perhaps it didn't matter. Following the disintegration of the friendship with Zola, and his brief period of hanging out with Marion, the only person that could've been considered a true friend of Cezanne's was art collector Victor Choquet. It was a mutually beneficial friendship as Choquet got to collect Cezanne's work and Cezanne had the ego massage of having his work collected by a man who'd already amassed a large number of Delacroix works, a giant of the previous generation of French artists and one, it seems, Cezanne, had huge admiration for.
It seems at this point that, other than Choquet, Cezanne's portraiture was restricted to himself, his wife, and his child. The gauzy aquatic washes of Paul Jr's 1883 portrait seem to belong more to the style of his contemporary Paul Gauguin even if the subject matter is far more wholesome than Gauguin's celebration of free love in Polynesia. Henri Matisse was a good thirty years younger than Cezanne, and still an infant when the older man painted Madame Cezanne in a red armchair, but it seems highly possible that the father of fauvism was inspired by Cezanne's lovingly rendered colours. The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke certainly was. Of the work Rilke said "the consciousness of her presence has grown into an exultation which I perceive even in my sleep; my blood describes her to me".
Portrait of the artist's son (c.1883)
It's hinted here that Cezanne, at this time, was not feeling such profound emotion towards his wife as Rilke later would feel for her portrait. The curators of the exhibition have skimmed past an 'unrequited love affair' Cezanne had in the early 1880s that resulted in his marriage to Hortense and perhaps explains why the gap between the birth of their child and the sound of wedding bells would be the best part of a decade and a half. It also, I would cynically suggest, explains why the self-portrait Cezanne made of himself in 1885 was based on a photograph taken of him in 1872 when he still had hair and his gaze was calm and steady rather than intense and borderline frightening. Was this an attempt to woo another or a 'here's what you could have won' to someone who'd spurned him?
Certainly the following few years saw him get to work on an astoundingly large number of portraits of his now wife. Were these Cezanne's versions of flowers, chocolates, and trips to the opera, his way of saying sorry? Or, after erring (or attempting to), had he seen what a fool he'd been and was now finally able to see the beauty in his wife that he'd never seen before.
Her stern expression doesn't give a lot a way. Perhaps she was angry with him or more likely she was frustrated as she had to sit still for hours on end as her husband painted her in a striped dress, then in a blue dress, then in a red dress, then in a blue dress again, and then in a red dress again. At least Mont Sainte-Victoire and the apples and pears didn't complain when Cezanne demanded their complicity in his grand project.
Madame Cezanne in a striped dress (1885-86)
Madame Cezanne in a blue dress (1886-87)
Madame Cezanne in a red dress (1888-90)
Boy in a red waistcoat (1888-90)
It has to be said that Cezanne's Boy in a red waistcoat is painted with a joie de vivre and a vivacity that is utterly absent from his pictures of supposed matrimonial contentment. The jaunty angle the urchin stands at and the gay red of his waistcoat are enough to cast doubts on Cezanne's commitment to heterosexuality.
One thing you couldn't doubt his commitment to was painting though. It may be a moot point just how Paul and Hortense's marriage played out but nobody seems to be arguing that there was any greater thing in his life, anything that obsessed him more, than the work itself. In a painting that both my friend Sanda and I observed to be surprisingly hectic after the rather plain likenesses of Madame Cezanne, we learnt that Cezanne abandoned this work unfinished after three whole months of work despairing of the fact that he was unable to complete either the face or the hands of Goffrey to what he considered an acceptable level.
Gustave Goffrey (1895-96)
Woman with cafetiere (c.1895)
By this time Cezanne and his wife were drifting apart and Cezanne's portraiture was becoming more heavily focused on local agricultural workers, domestic servants, children, and, shock horror, some of the art world admirers he'd normally steer well clear of. If it wasn't for the purity of his agenda and his rigorous approach to finding new ways to see it could almost be claimed he was becoming a little twee in his dotage. For sure his work seems to bifurcate at this point. Some of the paintings start to celebrate colour in a way Cezanne rarely had before as if to announce the coming of fauvism. Others, however, look back to the darkened corners of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
Elsewhere, Woman with cafetiere for example, Cezanne appears to presage the metaphysical realism of Giorgio Morandi. Cezanne said we should "treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone" and in the mid-right, opposite the pyramidal shaped woman who looks about as cheerful as Hortense herself, there stands a very simple coffee cup that shows, as much as anything in this exhibition, that for Cezanne the subject was never really the subject, the subject was always the angles of nature, the reflection of light upon those angles, and how, he, Cezanne could bring them to life in a more real, more meaningful, way than any other artist of his time.
Ambroise Vollard (1899)
After 115 sessions with Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne ceded defeat and that's perhaps why Vollard was allowed to take ownership of this canvas. Cezanne may've, when it came to his art, lacked modesty but he was a perfectionist and if a piece didn't reach his exacting standards it seemed he had no use for it. To our eyes, surely, the portrait of Vollard is no better or worse than anything else in this show but to Cezanne's eyes there was something missing. Cezanne's art was as much about looking as it was about painting.
The smoker (1893-96)
Man with a pipe (1891-96)
Child in a straw hat (1896)
Child with doll (1895)
Towards the end of his life Cezanne's favourite subject was the gardener Valllier and in the two following portraits you can see an idea of how Cezanne's art may've progressed. Colour is allowed to take over the frame more than ever before (a process the likes of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck would turbocharge in the following years), the handling of his brush became freer than ever and, it could be a trick played by the curators of the exhibition, there's some suggestion that Cezanne finally found peace with himself and his art before he died of pneumonia in 1906 in Aix-en-Provence, 69 years after he was born in that same city. A city he'd loved but not one that had always loved him.
His final self-portrait, painted some time between 1898 and 1900, shows an artist who was now more successful than he'd ever been, finally a respected elder statesman of the art world who held court when young pretenders travelled south to visit him, but also weaker than ever and unable to fully enjoy the spoils of his success. Towards his death he painted almost every single day and even as his health failed him he still quested towards creating a perfect painting. Something many would argue he succeeded in doing time and time again.
Gardener Vallier (1902-06)
Gardener Vallier (1905-06)
Old woman with a rosary (1895-96)
To really capture Cezanne's immense gift to the future of art you'd need to witness a larger, more all encompassing, show of his work (landscapes, still lifes, AND portraits) but to see Cezanne from just one angle is still to see more than many artists could give you in their entirety. While Picasso and Matisse may've lit up the 20th century with their bold colours, inventive handling of space and perception, and images both violent and vibrant it was the quieter man from Provence who had taken those brave first steps into modernity. He may not have been thanked for it at the time but justice, it seems, comes to those who wait.
Thanks to Sanda for joining me on this cultural expedition, for the mocha and millionaire shortbread, and, most of all, for the company. Looking forward to the next one.
Self-portrait with beret (1898-1900)