The present watercolor is one of several portraits that Cézanne painted between 1902 and 1906, depicting the gardener Vallier who tended the property surrounding his studio in the Chemin des Lauves (see lot 33). Like Uncle Dominique in Cézanne's youth and his wife Hortense in his maturity, the elderly Vallier--whom Cézanne is said to have regarded with deep trust and affection--consented to pose for the artist on a regular basis during the very last years of his life. Theodore Reff has called this important series of paintings "the latest and grandest of all Cézanne's portraits," explaining, "No longer portraits in the traditional sense, they are images of a man wholly absorbed into his natural environment and entirely at peace with it, and as such they express more eloquently than any other late works the profoundly spiritual vision of Cézanne's late years" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, pp. 22-23).
Cézanne depicted Vallier in six oil paintings and three watercolors between 1902, the year that the studio at Les Lauves was built, and 1906, the year of his own death. The six oils may be divided into two distinct groups based upon pose, costume, palette, and brushwork. In three of the paintings (fig. 1; also Rewald, nos. 948, 951), Vallier is shown from the knees up, seated in three-quarter view. His body has an imposing grandeur that nearly fills the canvas. He wears a heavy overcoat and a visored cap, indicating that the works were probably painted in the winter. With their heavy impasto, labored handling, and dark colors (black for Vallier's clothes, brown and forest green for the background), the paintings have a somber, impenetrable quality reminiscent of Rembrandt's portraits. In the other three oils, by contrast, Vallier wears a white shirt and a straw hat, suggesting a warm-weather scene. The colors are much brighter and the handling looser, and the background is described explicitly as a garden. In two canvases from this group (fig. 2; also R., no. 953), Vallier is seen full-length and frontal, his hands in his lap and his right leg crossed over his left. The present watercolor and one other (Rewald Watercolors, no. 640) are closely related to this pair of paintings, as are an oil and a watercolor of an unidentified sitter that Cézanne painted around the same time (fig. 4; also R., no. 952). The third warm-weather portrait of Vallier (fig. 3), which Rewald has identified as the painting that Cézanne was working on when he died in 1906, depicts the sitter in profile and at closer range than the cross-legged compositions. There is also a watercolor study for this final oil (R. Watercolors, no. 641).
In the present watercolor, Vallier is seen against a network of undulating tree trunks and verdant foliage. The horizontal line in the background probably represents the low wall separating the small terrace in front of the studio at Les Lauves from the garden beyond. John Rewald has written about this particular work, "The loose pencil lines and the curves of the trees form a contrast to the sitter's immobility. The colors are applied to an extensive pencil sketch, though the brush did not follow all the pencil indications. Thus, the gardener's garments were left white--the white of the paper--revealing the often vague tracings of the pencil, while thin color washes are accumulated around them. In some instances contours are defined by slight, staccato brushstrokes. The dark, purple-brownish chair establishes the center; the background is rich in light greens, blues, and pinks and is much brighter than that of the corresponding painting [fig. 2]" (in op. cit., p. 257).
Contemporary testimony indicates that Cézanne worked on the various portraits of Vallier over a period of four years. In July of 1902, just after the studio at Les Lauves was completed, the poet Jules Borély saw the artist at work on a bather composition and one of the Rembrandtesque portraits of Vallier, which he described as "the head of a peasant wearing a hunting cap" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 232). The artist confided to Borély that he had worked on the painting at length, adding, "The eyes aren't there yet, I haven't gotten them" (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, p. 557). The Vallier paintings were still in progress in January of 1905, when R.P. Rivière and Jacques Schnerb called on Cézanne at Les Lauves. Shortly after their visit, they recalled, "Cézanne also painted a portrait of a man in profile, wearing a cap. He seemed to attach great importance to the painting: 'If I make a success of this fellow, then the theory will be true'" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996, p. 512).
When Charles Camoin and Francis Jourdain visited Cézanne in 1906, the artist was still preoccupied with the portraits of Vallier. Jourdain wrote, "Camoin had anticipated that we would find on the two easels the same two paintings that he had seen there a year earlier, and he was not mistaken. He noted only that the Portrait of a Gardener and the Bathers seemed a bit less worked up than when he'd last visited" (quoted in ibid., p. 512). In September 1906, just a month before his death, Cézanne himself wrote to his son Paul, "I still see Vallier, but I'm so slow in my réalisation that it makes me very sad" (quoted in ibid., p. 515). On October 15th, Cézanne took ill after being caught for several hours in a rainstorm during a painting excursion. Shortly thereafter, the painter's sister wrote to her nephew, Paul fils, "The next day [October 16th], he went early in the morning to the garden to work on a portrait of Vallier under the linden tree; when he returned he was dying" (quoted in ibid., p. 515). Cézanne in fact died a week later, on October 23rd of 1906.
The length of time that Cézanne worked on the Vallier paintings accords well with the recollections of his portrait subjects. The dealer Ambroise Vollard, whose portrait Cézanne painted in 1899, left a detailed account of the process: "The sittings lasted from eight to eleven-thirty in the morning. Very few people saw Cézanne at work; he could not abide having people watching over his shoulder. For those who never saw him paint, it is difficult to imagine how slow and laborious his work could be on certain days. In my portrait, there are two little spots on the hand where the canvas is bare. I pointed this out to Cézanne. He responded, 'I may be able to find the right color with which to cover the white spots tomorrow morning. You understand, Monsieur Vollard, that if I were to cover them with just anything, I would be forced to start the painting all over again from here!' When you consider that I had a hundred and fifteen sittings, you can understand that the prospect of starting the picture again from the beginning made me shudder" (quoted in G. Adriani, Cézanne Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Tübingen, 1993, p. 232). Likewise, in a letter to the painter Emile Bernard dated May 1904, the same period as the Vallier portraits, Cézanne wrote, "I proceed very slowly because nature presents itself to me with great complexity and there is continual progress to be made. One must observe one's model well and feel very accurately, but also express oneself with distinctiveness and force" (quoted in J. Rewald, op. cit., 1996, p. 557).
Cézanne's depictions of Vallier have often been interpreted as a poignant meditation on mortality, much like the still-lifes of skulls that the artist painted during his last years. The portraits show the gardener as dignified yet work-worn, his hands gnarled, his shoulders slumped, his beard long and full. Cézanne's letters to his son from this period indicate that his own declining health weighed heavily on his mind, a fact that finds eloquent expression in the paintings of the elderly gardener. As the artist told Jules Borély in 1902, "I love above all things the aspect of people who've grown old without changing their ways, abandoning themselves to the laws of time I live in the city of my childhood [Aix], and it's in the look of people my own age that I see the past again" (quoted in ibid., pp. 506-507, 512). The portraits of Vallier may in fact be considered metaphorical self-portraits, emblematic of the painter's identification with his sitter. Cézanne's friend and biographer, Joachim Gasquet, has even suggested that the artist himself may have posed for the pictures when Vallier was unavailable. The works, in Gasquet's words, are "redolent of the painter's twilight days, of his decline It is here, perhaps, that we must seek out and contemplate old Cézanne's last words about life and about himself" (quoted in ibid., pp. 512, 515).
Although the Vallier paintings are particularly notable for their powerful emotional charge, they also continue a series of portraits that Cézanne had begun in the late 1880s, which depict peasants and laborers. The models for most of these portraits--of which the best-known are the Cardplayers of 1890-1892--were probably workers and domestic servants from the Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne's family home in Aix. In a letter to Emile Zola dated March 1891, Paul Alexis, a novelist who grew up in Provence with Cézanne, recounted that the artist was "painting at the Jas de Bouffan, where a worker serves him as a model" (quoted in J.J. Rishel, Great French Paintings from the Barnes Collection, New York, 1995, p. 122). The sitters are rarely shown at work; instead, as in the portraits of Vallier, they pose seated or standing, often with a pensive or somber air (fig. 5). Reff has written:
"In all of these [portraits] there appears a new note of somberness and mystery. Most are images of serious, even sad meditation; the subjects' postures and features, so often said to be inexpressive and masklike, speak eloquently of this mood... If Cézanne can embody in these simple figures the dignity and restraint that are so characteristic of his own behavior, it is because they represent for him, despite their humble social status, an unassuming simplicity and natural nobility which he admires. They were congenial human types, not merely available models, and he lamented their disappearance from modern society. 'Look at the old café proprietor seated before his doorway,' he told a visitor in 1902. 'What style!'" (in op. cit., pp. 14 and 22).
It has recently been suggested that Cézanne's portraits of laborers from the last two decades of his life may reflect in part the severe agricultural crisis that France sustained in the late nineteenth century. Fields were laid to waste, and peasants abandoned the countryside for the city in droves. Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer has written: "It was the peasantry, now, that held center stage. It was a peasantry that carried bleak associations of what the region stood to lose (indeed was already losing)--a vital rural population, a once-thriving agricultural economy, an age-old crafts industry, and more poignantly, a way of life. In the late 1880s, monumental single figures of men in rural outfits make their first appearance in Cézanne's oeuvre. Pensive and grim, they sit or stand, their hands crossed or hanging by their sides, and, sign of the times, idle. Although the paintings look like (and are undoubtedly intended to be) portraits of anonymous laborers, their abrupt emergence in Cézanne's oeuvre in the critical context of the late 1880s and 1890s, combined with their pointedly iconic rendering, suggests a meaning beyond simple likeness... Beyond the dazzling mirage of evanescent modernity entertained in the capital, Cézanne's brooding peasants stand for that marginal rural majority that constituted the core of the French nation and French nationhood" (in Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, Chicago, 2003, pp. 209 and 215).
Significantly, the portraits of laborers from the Jas de Bouffan, like Cézanne's celebrated renderings of his wife, almost all depict the sitter in an interior. One of the few examples to feature an outdoor setting is, in fact, the very earliest painting in the series, a portrait of an unidentified gardener from the mid-1880s (fig. 6). It would not be until the portraits of Vallier nearly two decades later--the same time that Cézanne was working on the Large Bathers--that the artist would explore in earnest the pictorial possibilities of a portrait subject posed out-of-doors, surrounded by foliage and enveloped in natural light.
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Le jardinier Vallier, 1902-1906. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 24006996
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Le jardinier Vallier, 1905-1906. Tate Gallery, London. BARCODE 24007009
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Le jardinier Vallier, 1906. Private Collection. BARCODE 24007023
(fig. 4) Paul Cézanne, Homme assis, 1905-1906. Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 24007016
(fig. 5) Paul Cézanne, Portrait de paysan assis, 1898-1900. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 24007047
(fig. 6) Paul Cézanne, Le jardinier, circa 1885. Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. BARCODE 24007030