In the autumn of 1866 Cézanne painted some ten portraits of his maternal uncle, Dominque Aubert. Startling for the rapidity with which they were executed and the almost crude manner in which the artist built of thick layers of paint with a palette knife, the series constitutes a significant body of work in Cézanne's early career.
Although Dominique Aubert was employed as a bailiff in Cézanne's home town of Aix-en-Provence, the artist rendered him in various disguises: as a Dominican Friar (fig. 1), a pun, perhaps, on Aubert's first name; as a pompous lawyer mimicking the gesture of the Pantocrator (fig. 2); as an exotic bohemian wearing a turban (Rewald, no. 105; Private Collection); as an artisan sporting a tasseled hat and a smock (fig. 3); and as a country local wearing an informal cap (Rewald, no. 103; Private Collection). It is not clear whether the various costumes belonged to Cézanne, his father (who had been a hatmaker) or Dominique. It is likely, however, that the artist disguised the sitter as an inside joke, engaging in a critique of social types and of the hackneyed stereotypes of academic painting. For when Dominique is stripped of the outward signs of social convention and class--as he is in the present painting--he is reduced in status to just another provincial civil servant, a decidedly pedestrian subject for painting.
The words of Cézanne's boyhood friend, Emile Zola, provide considerable insight into the artist's implicit challenge to the conventions of academic painting. In his tract on Edouard Manet, whose work, like Cézanne's, he championed, Zola attacked the pretentious and anachronistic painting exhibited in the official Salon:
Look at the Salon... This one composes odes to Poland, this
another one, an ode to Cleopatra; there is one who sings in the
manner of Tibullus, and another who tries to sound the great
trumpet of Lucretius. I am not mentioning the battle hymns,
elegies, spicy ballads, or fables. What a farce. (Quoted in J.
Taylor, Nineteenth Century Theories of Art, Berkeley, 1987,
Cézanne knew all too well the price an aspiring artist would pay for failing to conform to accepted academic conventions; in 1863, he exhibited at the infamous Salon des Refusés, and again made unsuccessful bids to have work admitted to the Salons of 1864 and 1865. By 1866, Cézanne's contempt for the elitist jury of the Salon was such that at the last possible moment he delivered a landscape and a portrait of Antony Valabrèque to the Palais de l'Industrie in a wheelbarrow. Once again, his entries were refused.
Cézanne and his colleagues responded to these rejections with an unmistakable air of defiance. As one friend recounted in a letter sent home to Aix:
...the whole realist school has been refused, Cézanne, Guillemet, and the others. The only pictures accepted are Courbet's things--it appears that he is growing weak... In reality we triumph and this mass refusal, this vast exile, is in itself a victory. All we have to do is to plan an exhibition of our own and put up a deadly competition against those bleary-eyed idiots.
We are in a fighting period: youth against old age...the present, laden with promise of the future, against the past, that black
pirate. Talk of posterity. Well, we are posterity. We trust
in the future. Our adversaries can trust at best in death.
We are confident. All we want is to produce. If we work,
our success is certain... (Letter from Antoine-Fortuné Marion
to Heinrich Morstatt; quoted in J. Rewald, Cézanne: A
Biography, New York, 1986, pp. 57-58)
Zola, in turn, prefaced Mon Salon, a collection of essays indicting the Salon system and the government's fine arts policies, with a personal memoir describing the embattled position in which he and Cézanne found themselves in Aix and Paris:
We felt ourselves lost in the midst of a complacent and frivolous crowd... Do you realize that we were unwitting revolutionaries? I have just managed to utter aloud what we have been whispering for ten years. The sound of the dispute has reached your ears, has
it not? And you have seen the fine reception our cherished
thoughts have been given... Do you recall our long conversations? We said that no new truth could appear without arousing anger and boos. And now my turn has come to be booed and insulted. (E.
Zola, Mes haines; causeries littéraires et artistique; mon
Salon; Edouard Manet, étude biographique et critique; quoted
in J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, Letters, New York, 1984, p. 111)
Zola originally published the articles that would comprise Mon Salon in the progressive but short-lived newspaper L'Evénement, earning him considerable fame among young artists as an astute and sympathetic critic. In a portrait of Louis-Auguste Cézanne (fig. 4) that is roughly contemporaneous with the Uncle Dominique paintings, Cézanne shows his father seated in a floral armchair reading the newspaper, although Louis-Auguste is known to have preferred the conservative Le Siècle. The painting sheds considerable light on Cézanne's mocking attitude at this time, as he takes on the establishment--represented in the person of his banker father--with willful disdain.
Indeed, substantial evidence points to Cézanne's self-styled identity as a rebel during the period in which he executed the Uncle Dominique paintings. In a letter to Heinrich Morstatt from the summer of 1866, Cézanne's friend Antoine-Fortuné Marion commented, "Paul is wonderful this year, with his scarce and extremely long hair and his revolutionary beard" (quoted in ibid., p. 62). To this one may add Cézanne's generally scruffy appearance, his delight in speaking in the local patois, and his penchant for scatological language--behavior that was "ostentatious and theatrical enough to be seen as mostly strategies, militant acts calculated to outrage" (N. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, "Review of L. Gowing, Cézanne: The Early Years, 1859-1872," Art Journal, spring, 1990, p. 72). However, this is not to imply that Cézanne's public behavior was programmatically linked to a radical political platform, in the sense that Courbet conceived of himself as an artist and a social revolutionary. Rather, Cézanne sought to transgress bourgeois social values in a more general way, through the form of painting itself. Speaking of the artist's self-consciously crude style at this time--his so-called manière couillarde--Nina Kallmyer writes:
Its primordial roughness violated the primness of academic "fini" ...just as Cézanne's real-life boorishness exploded the
hypocrisy of bourgeois propriety. Idiosyncratic and personal...
its belabored surfaces preserve the artist's touch, the private
"dialect" of his particular "temperament"...just as its linguistic equivalent, Cézanne's Provençal patois, flaunted in the
face of leveling polished Parisian French, established the
artist's social singularity... The term "couillarde" itself (from couilles = testicles, guts), with its connotations of
masculinity, potency, and courage, also suggested Cézanne's wish to separate himself from the emasculated Salon painters, Zola's
"crowd of eunuchs"... (N. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, "An Artistic and Political Manifesto for Cézanne," Art Bulletin, Sept., 1990, p. 491)
In a word, Cézanne was a "ballsy" painter.
Cézanne's transgression, of course, was by no means an isolated occurrence in nineteenth-century art. He had only to look to his contemporary, Courbet, for a model of artistic independence and freedom from social conventions. By 1866, however, Courbet the revolutionary of 1848 had gained a large measure of critical acceptance, as his admission to the Salon of that year attests. The change in the critical fortunes of the painter from Ornans did not go unremarked within Cézanne's circle. As Antoine Guillemet wrote to a mutual friend, Francisco Oller, in March 1866:
Courbet is becoming classical. He has painted splendid things,
but next to Manet he is traditional, and Manet next to Cézanne
will become so in turn... We are working on top of a volcano; the year '93 of painting will soon ring in its demise, the Louvre will go up in flames, the museums of antiquities will disappear, and
as Proudhon has said, a new art can only arise from the ashes of
ancient civilizations. We are burning with fever; an entire
century separates today from tomorrow... Let's rush to take up
arms, let's grasp with an eager hand the dagger of insurrection,
let's demolish and reconstruct... (Quoted in J. Rewald, op.
cit., 1984, p. 64)
Cézanne, in short, would have to stage his artistic rebellion in a different way.
The ten portraits of Uncle Dominique provide the most telling evidence of the ways in which Cézanne fashioned his public persona as an artistic--if not a political--revolutionary. Adopting the palette knife technique which Courbet had developed and which Manet made his own, Cézanne at once paid homage to and challenged the authority of his infamous contemporaries. Christopher Campbell has described Cézanne's technique, in contrast to Courbet's thin application of multiple layers of pigment:
Cézanne began to handle paint like the cement in a stone wall:
piled on as though it were necessary to hold the stones together, and left to stand that way. Instead of maneuvering the knife to
suppress the edges of individual knife-strokes or establish large continuous areas, Cézanne discovered that by building a picture up as an accumulation of individual strokes...he could convey his persistent fascination with the particularities of real vision... as those particularities were translated through an individual
tempérament... (C.B. Campbell, "Pissarro and the palette
knife: Two pictures from 1867," Apollo, Nov., 1992, p. 312)
Just as Dominique's parodic masquerade challenged normative codes of bourgeois conduct, so did Cézanne stage and redefine the terms of contemporary painting. In the process he proclaimed his position as legitimate heir to the tradition of the avant-garde.
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Portrait d'un moine (L'Oncle Dominique), circa 1866
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, L'avocat (L'Oncle Dominique), circa 1866
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, L'homme au bonnet de coton (L'Oncle Dominique), circa 1866
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(fig. 4) Paul Cézanne, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, père de l'artiste, lisant "L'Evénement", 1866
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.