The present picture is an ardent and evocative portrait of Achille Emperaire, a fellow painter from Aix and one of the most youthful of Cézanne's closest companions. He and Cézanne met at the Académie Suisse in the early 1860s and remained intimate friends through at least the following decade. Later, Cézanne would remember Emperaire with emotion, speaking of "a burning soul, nerves of steel, an iron pride in a misshapen body, a flame of genius in a crooked hearth, a mixture of Don Quixote and Prometheus" (quoted in J. Gasquet, Cézanne, Paris, 1921, p. 26). Although Emperaire achieved little success as an artist, Cézanne remained a devoted champion of his work, calling him "devilishly more painter" than the "bemedaled and decorated tramps" who attained acclaim at the Salon (quoted in J. Rewald, "Achille Emperaire and Cézanne," in Studies in Impressionism, New York, 1985, pp. 65-66).
Cézanne made five charcoal and pencil studies of Emperaire (Chappuis nos. 226-230) and two completed oil paintings, the present example and a full-length portrait in the Musée d'Orsay (fig. 1). He seems to have been particularly captivated by Emperaire's magnificent head, with its high domed brow, heavily lidded eyes, thick moustache, pointed Louis XIII goatee, and abundant musketeer's hair. In the present work, Emperaire is shown with his gaze soulfully upturned, as though visited by a sudden and forceful inspiration. The picture was probably begun in mid-1867, following Cézanne's return to Aix after several months' stay in Paris. It may be one of the works to which the artist's friend Fortuni Marion referred in a letter dated June or July 1867, describing Cézanne as hard at work on "some truly beautiful portraits; no longer [executed] with the palette knife, but just as vigorous" (quoted in ibid., p. 119).
The picture originally formed part of the mural decoration of the Jas de Bouffan, a manor house just west of Aix that Cézanne's father acquired in 1859. Between 1860 and 1870, Cézanne executed several paintings directly on plaster in the large salon of the house. In addition to the present work, these include four female figures representing the seasons, a scène galante after Nicolas Lancret, a male bather in a rocky landscape, a romantic landscape with fishermen, a portrait of the artist's father, a scene of Christ in limbo, and a pair of heads (Rewald, nos. 4-7, 23, 28-30, 34-41, 95, 145, 155). The paintings were still in place in 1899, when the Jas de Bouffan was sold to Louis Granel.
In 1912, Granel detached some of the paintings from the wall and sold them to Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. The present picture, however, remained in situ in 1919, when Roger Fry visited the Jas de Bouffan; as Fry wrote to Vanessa Bell, "I went to [Cézanne's] tiny studio at the top of the house: he'd simply put a high north light in the roof of a small bedroom... However, at last I found two early Cézannes -- one, the head of Emperaire; the other a thing called Contrastes [Rewald, no. 155]..." (quoted in ibid., p. 120). Following Granel's death, the contents of the Jas de Bouffan passed to his son-in-law, Dr. Frédéric Corsy, who retained some of the paintings as late as 1960.
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Portrait du peintre Achille Emperaire, 1867-1868.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.