Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Cézanne Portraits

Self-Portrait With A Bowler Hat, 1885-6

" - after 115 sittings for a portrait of Ambroise Vollard...
I am not altogether displeased with the shirt-front." (Paul C

To the National Portrait Gallery for a very impressive exhibition. Cézanne Portraits, charts the artistic development of that particular aspect of the artists' oeuvre. I found it to be a much more satisfying exhibition than the damp squib that was - Picasso Portraits (here) staged at the NPG early last year, as there are many more examples of the best of Cézanne's portraiture here than there were of Picasso's in the Picasso show. Cézanne largely rejected the traditional notion that a portrait should provide a physical and psychological resemblance of the sitter. For Cézanne a portrait was a record of the thing regarded; nothing more. He depicted the presence of the subject in a matter of fact way, with no concern for what the viewer may be thinking, or clues about what the sitter was like as a person. The portraits here for the most part reject the idea that women should be portrayed as beautiful, and men important and powerful. There are no heroic/seductive poses to be found in Cézanne's portraiture, just a sense of measured observation. Cézanne began painting portraits in earnest in 1866, initially of family and very close friends. His early style was influenced by artist Gustave Courbet, and the portraits were made with a palette knife in a technique that he described as manière couillarde (from couilles, testicles), meaning a crude, ballsy style, demonstrated in the energetic, textural portrait of his Uncle Dominique below. He began to find his own artistic voice with the more sensitively handled portraits of his friends Anthony Valabrègue, and Antoine Fortune Marion below, in which he began to use a paintbrush and explore a broader range of strokes. These portraits were very similar in style to the work of Picasso in his 1901 period.

“L’Événement”, 1866

Paul Alexis Reading A Manuscript To Zola, 1869-70

Uncle Dominique In Profile, 1866-7

 Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue, 1869-1871

Portrait of Antoine Fortune Marion, 1866

Madame Cézanne Sewing, 1877

Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922), who would become Madame Cézanne, met Cézanne in 1869, and they had a son - Paul in 1872. Fiquet was the most painted of Cézanne's portrait subjects taking up half of the thirty four recorded portrait sittings. They were forced to keep their relationship secret from his father for fear of Cézanne losing his monthly allowance. The couple married though in 1881 to formalise the relationship. The portrait of Fiquet below, was one of my favourites of Cézanne's in the show. There are some lovely subtle gradations of colour and tone in the skirt, and I liked the contrast of the vibrant red armchair against the murky mustard yellow background. The 'quietness' and domesticity depicted in these portraits are very reminiscent of the interior studies and portraits of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Madame Cézanne In A Red Armchair, 1877

Self-Portrait Rose Ground, 1875

Portrait of Victor Chocquet, 1877

Self-Portrait, 1880-81

Self-Portrait In A White Bonnet, 1881-2

Portrait Of The Artist's Son, 1881-82

Cézanne has been much criticised for the dispassionate observations of the subjects in his portraits especially those of his wife. I think this criticism is largely unjust, when one considers the examples of the portraits of his son Paul, and that of his wife below. Cézanne in this respect was a precursor and inspiration to artists such as Euan Uglow, with their obsessive, meticulous observations of their subjects. Yes, in certain portraits his wife does look dour and sorely in need of some artistic flattery, with her blank, impassive expression, and hair, masculinely severe, and scraped back. The reason for the severity of her expression may have been the sheer number of hours that she like others were forced to sit still and pose for Cézanne. Other portraits though, are quite tender studies of Hortense, (despite Cézanne's purely analytical reputation), and display a lightness of touch with thin layers of paint. At the time Cézanne painted the portrait of his son, he had developed his own style of painting which involved a sequence of 'constructive brushstrokes', which were patches of paint applied in a parallel, usually diagonal, direction running across the facial features, figures and grounds. Another technique Cézanne employed was to use lots of loose, scrubby brushstrokes to block in large areas of the canvas, but leaving much of the bare canvas ground showing through giving the impression of texture. Both techniques are used to great effect in the first self-portrait image of this post - Self-Portrait With A Bowler Hat, 1885-6. The room full of his portraits of Madame Cézanne in the exhibition is really cohesive and strong.

Madame Cézanne, c.1885-6

Madame Cézanne With Loosened Hair, 1870-9

Madame Cézanne In Blue, 1888-90

Boy In A Red Waistcoat, 1888-90

Madame Cézanne In A Red Dress, 1888-90

Madame Cézanne In A Yellow Chair, 1893-95

Madame Cézanne In Red, 1890-94

Madame Cézanne In Blue, 1886

The last rooms of the exhibition brings together Cézanne's larger portraits of the latter half of his career. There is an interesting conflict going on in these rooms as the curators have created a conflict in which the working class labourers that Cézanne enjoyed painting, face-off against his portraits of the celebrated Parisian intelligentsia. The portrait of Gustave Geffroy doesn't really work in my opinion as the figure is too stiff and formal. Cézanne himself was unhappy with it. The portrait of Ambroise Vollard however is a really intense, brooding stunner, as are many of the paintings of labourers. Cézanne wasn't the greatest draughtsman, as his shortcomings in this department are plain to see in some of the works on display, but the viewer can see just how much an innovator Cézanne was, in employing a series of visual tricks in which he distorted the picture plane, flattening the perspective of the furniture, and skewing elements - having the figures lean lopsidedly, or the backgrounds, wherein dado rails fail to match up, prefiguring Cubism.

Woman With Cafetiere/Coffee Pot, 1895

Ambroise Vollard, 1899

Man In A Blue Smock, 1897

Gustave Geffroy, 1895-6

Man With Pipe, 1891-6

 Man Smoking A Pipe, 1902

Self-Portrait With Beret, 1898-1900
This last known self-portrait of Cézanne as a shrunken old man in beret, recalls those later, warts-and-all portraits of an aged Rembrandt in its honesty. In his own way Cézanne was a consummate colourist, not going in for the bright, brash colourful theatrics of say Matisse, but adopting his own tonally restricted palette which he used to just as good effect. The intense light of southern France around Cézanne's beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire must have also helped his own development as a colourist. Cézanne Portraits  is one of the best exhibitions to have graced London in the last year. Make the time to visit if you can, it will be a great way to start the new year.

Cézanne Portraits
until 11th February 
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin's Place