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‘Cézanne wouldn’t do what portrait painters were expected to do’

For the first time, a British museum has brought together many of the key portraits by Paul Cézanne. Curator John Elderfield explains why his subjects rarely got an easy ride

Paul Cézanne has long been acknowledged as a defining influence on 20th-century art, yet his figurative work has hitherto been relatively undervalued. Now a selection of important pieces has been brought together in Cézanne Portraits  at the National Portrait Gallery, London, before the exhibition moves to Washington, D.C.

Curated by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Cézanne Portraits  reveals how the artist’s radical experiments in form and colour appeared in his many representations of friends and family.

Among works previously unseen in Britain are Self-Portrait in a Bowler Hat  from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, while on display for the first time in Britain since the 1930s are Boy in a Red Waistcoat  from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Madame Cézanne in a Chair.

Here, Elderfield explains how the French master devised a unique style that shaped the direction of art into the next century, and how we can better appreciate his work today.

Cézanne exhibited with the Impressionists, yet quickly deviated from their style. What was so different about his portraits?

John Elderfield: ‘Cézanne believed that what he had to do was represent the presence of the person in front of him. People bring expectations to portraiture that are unnecessary; they expect women to be painted in ways that makes them look attractive and for men to look important, and Cézanne wouldn’t have any of that.

‘It's a wonderful irony being here [at the NPG]. When you go through the upper floors, you see a lot of portraits in which the sitter is making an appeal to the viewer, gesturing or smiling or leaning towards them. Cézanne didn’t want any of this, he just wanted people who would sit still, not move or smile. Notoriously, he shouted at them if they did.’

When we think about Cézanne, the most recognisable works of his tend to be his intimate still lifes and the landscapes around his beloved Provençal home. Why did his portraits become so overshadowed?

JE: ‘Initially, his portraits were appreciated by other artists and some critics, but the general response was negative because Cézanne wouldn’t do what portrait painters were expected to do, which was to give a sense of the sitter’s internal psychology.

‘Later, because he was interpreted as someone who paved the way for abstraction of the external world, [his still lifes and landscapes] were more easily related to his influence on Cubism and early Modernism. It is easier to see that through works in which you don't have to deal with the vivid human content.’

Unusually for a painter from this period, Cézanne never accepted a commission for a portrait. Even though he would later live off an inheritance from his father, this still seems strange

JE: ‘He liked best to paint people who didn’t have any expectations of him, who didn’t expect to be flattered. There are stories that if Cézanne thought someone was too full of themselves, he would just put his brushes down.

‘He occasionally offered to paint people’s portraits because they’d done him favours, but they tended to give him trouble, like the painting of [novelist and critic Gustave] Geffroy. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful painting, very detailed with a rich background, but eventually Cézanne got fed up with it and one day he didn’t turn up [to paint the sitter]. The work remained unfinished.

‘He preferred painting the agricultural labourers from near Aix, and they seemed to respect his commitment to long working hours.’

Yet the portraits Cézanne did of his family and neighbours — and especially of his wife, Hortense — were clearly an important part of his practice. What drove him?

JE: ‘A constant with Cézanne is that he always, as he said, painted one stroke after the next, it was a cumulative model of painting. He was very aware in his still lifes that if an apple moved slightly, he would have to start the whole composition over again and I think it is the same with his portraits. He painted his wife more than anybody else, I think there are 28 or 29 portraits of her, and we have something like 11 or 12 of them.

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in Blue Dress, 1886-87. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Robert Lee Blaffer Memorial Collection, gift of Sarah Campbell Blaffer

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in Blue Dress, 1886-87. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Robert Lee Blaffer Memorial Collection, gift of Sarah Campbell Blaffer

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90. Art Institute of Chicago, Wilson L. Mead Fund

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90. Art Institute of Chicago, Wilson L. Mead Fund

‘Even in works from a similar period of time, as with the series of Hortense in a blue dress, the figures look like sisters rather than the same person. People found this difficult early on because they over-fixated on faces, but for Cézanne the expression wasn’t only in the face, but in the whole manner of painting a picture, and that became important for later artists.’

You pay close attention to the chronological development of Cézanne's portraiture. What does it tell us?

JE: ‘These striking compositions arise from the artist’s revolutionary use of his tools. In the 1860s he began painting exclusively with a palette knife, an extremely novel technique. Courbet used a palette knife, but not for portraits and never for the entirety of a picture. This provides his work with a homogeneous feel and a sense of materiality, of it being a painting, as with the series of works of his uncle Dominique, but it is also combative. Then he began to introduce brush strokes for greater variety.

Paul Cézanne, Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap, 1866-87. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolfe Fund, 1951, acquired from The Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection

Paul Cézanne, Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap, 1866-87. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolfe Fund, 1951, acquired from The Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection

‘Cézanne's interest in portraiture tailed off as he focused on outdoor painting, but when he returned to the subject in the mid-1870s he painted heavily with high colour, rather than the previous dark tones. From the 1880s onwards, his strokes became more regimented, regular and diagonal, building up blocks of colour like a map of Europe to give a sense of volume.

‘His later work became freer and more experimental as he learnt to build up layers of paints slowly. Some oil paintings from the 1890s and onwards look like watercolours, such as The Gardener Vallier  from the Tate collection.’

Paul Cézanne, The Gardener Vallier, 1905-06. Tate, London. Bequeathed by C. Frank Stoop 1933 © Tate, London 2017

Paul Cézanne, The Gardener Vallier, 1905-06. Tate, London. Bequeathed by C. Frank Stoop 1933 © Tate, London 2017

Picasso and Matisse are both said to have referred to Cézanne as ‘the father of us all’. How do you assess his influence?

JE: ‘Matisse said Cézanne was important for teaching him about the construction of colour through shapes rather than tonality. He also recognised that expression was there in the whole composition. Picasso was more aware of Cézanne offering freedom from representation. He also associated more with Cézanne because he was from the south of France. Cézanne had a reputation for being crotchety and difficult, and Picasso could be rude too.’

Cézanne Portraits  is at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018, and at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., from 25 March to 1 July 2018